Traffic Lights, Beauty Of Modern Cities

A standard feature of modern cities is the orderliness of vehicular traffic even with the bourgeoning population and the production of various types of automobiles. Indeed, the chaos in cities such as Lagos would have been catasthrophic.

Traffic lights are such a ubiquitous feature of the modern city that no one thinks much about them until you’re stuck in a line of cars, impatiently waiting for the light to turn green.

But there was a time when cities were signal-free and traffic was directed by police officers – or not at all. That changed 150 years ago when the world’s first traffic light was installed in London. Towering 20 feet above the street, the gas-powered signal was placed at the busy intersection outside the Houses of Parliament.

The world’s first traffic light was put up on Dec. 10, 1868.  With more than 1,000 people dying each year on London’s horse-and-buggy-clogged roads at the time, city leaders knew they had to do something, according to the Transport for London transit authority. Invented by railway engineer J.P. Knight, the traffic light did just that.

Given its inventor’s occupation, it’s not surprising that it resembled a railway signal and was equipped with both waving arms and gas-powered green and red lights for use at night. A police officer changed the lights manually, using switches.

Despite the British capital’s attempt to improve safety, the introduction of this new technology wasn’t without controversy.

“The direct control of our movement – stop now, go now – sat uneasily in Victorian liberal society,” said David Rooney, a researcher at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of a book on this history of traffic congestion.

At the time, London arguably needed more traffic control than ever. Its population had exploded from around 3 million in 1861 to around 7 million by 1910.

However, the reign of the world’s first traffic light was extraordinarily short-lived. A gas leak caused a series of explosions, seriously injuring a policeman, after just a month in action.

The city had to wait nearly six decades for traffic lights to really take off in 1925, when signals with electric lights came to London from the U.S.

Today, there are nearly 9 million people living in the greater London area. It’s the world’s seventh most congested city, behind Los Angeles at No. 1 and New York at 3, according to transport analytics company Inrix’s global traffic scorecard.

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