Here is a street sign that seems to epitomize the fatuousness, and perhaps the corruption, of municipal bureaucracy. Warning signs just like this have been popping up in the middle of streets in Providence for the past year or so. They are worse than useless. First, you have to avoid them. Second, to avoid them you must pay attention to them. Third, paying attention to the sign distracts from the attention you should be paying to pedestrians themselves. Are any about to cross the street? You might not notice if you are looking at or, worse, trying to interpret a sign in the middle of the road that says “State Law: Yield to pedestrian within crosswalk.”
Well, duh! Isn’t that what the crosswalk conveys? Watch out for pedestrians crossing!
You can imagine some mayoral order proceeding down the ranks of the local city bureaucracy after a pedestrian is hit by a car. “Solve this problem, or at least do something that lets voters think I am solving this problem!” A committee of incompetents is named to address the problem, and eventually the idea of a redundant sign directing driver attention to crosswalks emerges, proceeds back up the ranks of the local city bureaucracy, where it is approved by the mayor, adding yet another line item in the municipal budget, to be paid for by taxpayers.
The result: an unnecessary sign, a sign implementation contract, a new job in the sign maintenance department, and a new city PR official to argue that the sign is not redundant (if anyone asks). Or worse, maybe the real impetus for the sign is a sign manufacturing company owner who has a friend on the city council. Or … well, the possibilities are endlessly predictable.
So where does “tactical urbanism” come in? Tactical urbanism is when locals go around the bureaucracy to solve problems or to implement intelligent ideas on their own. The greatest example is the tables and chairs that were deployed in Times Square, Madison Square and other busy but overly broad Manhattan intersections. This idea was so beloved by the public that it was immediately shanghaied by the local traffic and park authorities of New York City. (The mayor recently tried to take the tables and chairs away from Times Square but angry public response forced him to back down.)
Well, that pedestrian warning sign has been, as I say, popping up all over Providence. But recently they have been disappearing from Hope Street (and possibly other streets as well). I would like to think that this is an instance of tactical urbanism deployed to solve a problem caused by the city. Just take away the signs!
This is an example of why H.L. Mencken said he’d rather be ruled by citizens selected at random from the phone book than by the people voters elect. Local government is where the rubber of democracy meets the road, so obviously it’s too important to leave to elected officials and their chums.
[This post goes onto my blog but not out to my blog send list recipients until my email server quits intercepting my bulk posts under the suspicion that they are spam. I am sorry to say that for the time being those who want to read my posts will have to visit my blog, or get them on social media. I will see if I can send to TradArch and Pro-Urb lists without punishment. – David Brussat]