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Traffic-tower_fifth-avenue_New-York-City-Untapped CitiesCloseup of traffic tower

By now all of us are familiar with traffic lights, from the functionality of crosswalk buttons in New York City to the adorable bike lane lights that have been cropping up these past few years. But did you know that before the advent of the modern traffic light, there were traffic towers that directed the flow of cars in Manhattan?

Traffic-tower_fifth-avenue_New-York-City_Untapped CitiesTraffic tower on Fifth Avenue. Image via timeshutter.com.

In the 1920s, the Fifth Avenue Association commissioned architect Joseph H. Freedlander to design seven 23-foot traffic towers made entirely out of bronze to be placed along the length of Fifth Avenue. In most other parts of Manhattan, a policeman was sent to direct the traffic, and usually this method sufficed to keep traffic flowing. However, these ornate, neoclassical-style towers were placed along the avenue due to its heavy, unmanageable traffic. Each of these structures not only directed traffic flow, but they also carried telephones, push-button signals, and flashlights for the policeman operating the tower– not to mention illuminated clocks equipped with bells, which sounded every hour.

Despite the apparent artistry of these structures, the towers were soon deemed an obstacle to traffic flow and were removed by the city by 1929. They’ve since been replaced by the much more practical modern traffic light, but the city still occasionally sends policemen to direct traffic.

Read more about cross walk buttons and bike lane lights in our Cities 101 column.

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