The Mighty Traffic Cone
This piece was written for Rob Walker’s Narrative Strategies for Objects project as part of the 2019 Design Writing and Research Summer Intensive, and published in Overlooked/Underappreciated, an examination of the minutiae of quotidian life.
New York is known as the city that never sleeps, but it is also the city that never stops. With more than 731,000 vehicles entering Manhattan every day, plus, buses, taxis, and bicycles, mobility could become a challenge.¹ In this scenario, a street-side emergency could become unreachable against the unstoppable transit. Fortunately, in 1940 a superhero emerged from the imagination of Charles D. Scanlon: the traffic cone. Scanlon worked at the Street Department in L.A. and needed to keep cars away from wet paint. The patent was issued in 1943, describing “how the marker sought to improve road safety by being made with a ‘resilient’ material that wouldn’t break or cause damage to cars if hit.”² Since then, traffic cones have been used in many contexts like roads, parking lots, streets, guarding safety for schools, concerts, and sports events, among other uses, but the primary use is deviating traffic. Its creator gave them hollowness, so they can hold up flags, lights, or any sign, enabling this superhero to be able to communicate with confused drivers. “You shall not pass! It is for your own safety, sir,” they might say. They are dressed in bright orange color to increase visibility, and they wear fluorescent stripes to shine at night when directing traffic. This is their mandatory uniform as temporary signs, according to the Manual on Uniform Control Traffic Devices (MUCTD)³ in which they were included in 1961, also declaring a minimum height of 18 inches for the streets and 28 inches when used on freeways.
There are nearly 140 million traffic cones worldwide today, thus, it is not an accident that the traffic cone has gained popularity. At Halloween, when kids love to dress up as their favorite superhero, the traffic cone has become one of the favorite costumes for toddlers. It is a source of inspiration, that’s why artists, incorporate them in their work, like in Yianni Nomiko’s urban glyphs, Emily Sloan’s King Cone, or Dennis Oppenheim’s 20-foot tall cone installation.
In New York you can find them almost everywhere. They can stand alone in the middle of the street, small but powerful. As safety vigilantes, they are capable of closing one, two lanes or a whole boulevard. New York cannot be separated from the streets, and in the streets, you will always see traffic cones working non-stop. Ensuring safety at sewers, gas lines, road maintenance, or construction sites, they shape the city and its mobility every day. However, cones have also been seen at sidewalks, on gardens, and at abandoned construction sites and parking lots. It is unknown yet how they got there. Some people ask if they are just resting from their duty, or if they have lost their job. Some cones have even been spotted in precarious conditions, living underneath stairs and bridges, dirty, smudged, broken, and crashed, even wearing rests of duct tape. How long before they start asking for coins on the street? “Spare change for this superhero veteran, please” Doesn’t New York have a retirement plan for them? Can we do anything about it?
¹ NYC DOT, “New York City Mobility Report,” Office of the Major, accessed June 10, 2019, https://www1.nyc.gov/html/dot/html/about/mobilityreport.shtml
² “The History of Traffic Cones” Donborns Sign and Safety, accessed June 10, 2019, https://www.dornbossign.com/sign-blog/the-history-of-traffic-cones/
3 “Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways” accessed June 10, 2019, https://mutcd.fhwa.dot.gov/