Mr. Blinky was a unique traffic control device located at the intersection of SW Broadway Drive and SW Hoffman Avenue. Drivers along the SW Broadway Drive toboggan run may have noticed that they never seemed to get a red light at Hoffman—only those ever-present flashing yellows. Well, you can thank Mr. Blinky for that.
You see, the genius of Mr. Blinky was that he was designed to never inconvenience a Broadway driver with the nuisance of having to stop, say for a pedestrian or another driver trying to enter the roadway. As a 1976 report from a Senior Traffic Engineer to an insurance company states,
Due to nearly total lack of visibility … a device was developed that maintains a flashing yellow caution indication for Hoffman Street and changes to flashing red for all directions only when no traffic is present on Broadway Drive. The signal will rest in flashing red all directions until a vehicle approaches on Broadway Drive.
So someone driving on Broadway never saw a flashing red because their presence triggered the overhead flashing yellow from hundreds of feet preceding Hoffman.
Although he violated all principles of active transportation planning, it was hard not to have a grudging respect for the cleverness of his design.
On a personal note, I had the privilege of spending 45 minutes with Mr. Blinky a couple of years ago. I was timing the duration of his two phases (solid red and flashing red) and although the phases weren’t random, they were completely unpredictable. During peak traffic, a pedestrian or Hoffman driver could easily wait about three minutes for through traffic on Broadway to be clear long enough for Mr. Blinky to signal it was safe to proceed into the blind curve.
Nobody is sure when Mr. Blinky was born, but his death marks the end of an era. It is fitting that he finally broke during the same week that the draft Pedestrian Design Guide revisions were released. Even though Mr. Blinky presided over a failed intersection, and I knew he was obsolete (he had already been around for over a half century) his death came as a shock to me. Maybe he will finally be replaced by a design that considers the safety of people walking, and riding a bike or e-scooter.
Mr. Blinky might have been an anachronistic, mid-twentieth century traffic control device, but damn it, he was our anachronistic, mid-twentieth century traffic control device. And although he violated all principles of active transportation planning, it was hard not to have a grudging respect for the cleverness of his design.
Mr. Blinky, dear friend, I hadn’t realized how fond of you I had become. Rest in Peace.
Lisa Caballero has lived in SW Portland for 20 years. She is on the Transportation Committee of her neighborhood association, the Southwest Hills Residential League (SWHRL) and can be reached at email@example.com.