Atlantic Cities

A Brief History of the Barnes Dance

A Brief History of the Barnes Dance
Flickr/thisisbossi

Earlier this month, in a great piece for New York magazine about traffic and pedestrian safety, Robert Kolker mentioned that the city has only one remaining "Barnes Dance" (where Broadway meets Battery Place and State Street). The Barnes Dance, sometimes called a scramble, is an intersection where car traffic halts for a bit so pedestrians can cross in all directions — including diagonally. You've probably seen pictures of the famous one in the Shibuya part of Tokyo (via Flickr user lu_lu):

The Barnes Dance takes its name from traffic engineer Henry Barnes, who served as street commissioner for a number of major American cities in the 20th century, including Denver, Baltimore, and New York. An old New York Times profile of Barnes described him as "a tense and ever-active man possessed of a peppery temper that at times lends tartness to his tongue." In 1968 the stress got the best of him, and he died of a heart attack on the job.

Barnes didn't invent the pedestrian scramble — Kansas City and Vancouver had such systems in the late 1940s — but did popularize it during his time in Denver. The dance got its name when a city hall reporter wrote that the crossings "made the people so happy they're dancing in the streets," according to Barnes's autobiography. In a 1951 talk to fellow engineers, Barnes described what inspired him to install the scrambles throughout Denver's business district:

As things stood now, a downtown shopper needed a four-leaf clover, a voodoo charm, and a St. Christopher's medal to make it in one piece from one curbstone to the other. As far as I was concerned — a traffic engineer with Methodist leanings — I didn't think that the Almighty should be bothered with problems which we, ourselves, were capable of solving.

Barnes became traffic commissioner of New York City in 1962 and started looking for potential dance sites on his very first day in office. He made plans for a test crossing at Vanderbilt Avenue and East 42nd Street, near Grand Central Station. The crossing went live within ten days, with pedestrians getting free reign for 23 seconds of every 90-second light cycle, and was immediately hailed a success by the Times:

New York pedestrians are accustomed, if not reconciled, to the desperate game of trying to cross a street between cars that are trying to turn corners.

The scramble system is designed to eliminate this unequal contest and its dangers.

Soon Wall Street, then Fifth and Madison avenues at 42nd Street, then Brooklyn had installed Barnes Dances as well. That's not to say the commissioner's balanced approach was beloved by all: he frequently clashed with New York's infamous road-builder Robert Moses, complaining that Moses's highways, bridges, and tunnels dumped traffic into the city without any concern for how to manage it. In the end Barnes understood that directing traffic is a contentious pursuit; he once wrote:

The one thing that a traffic engineer learns early in life is that, no matter how many statistics or how many studies he makes, he never can come up with an answer that will completely satisfy everyone.

One might say the same of the Barnes Dance itself. While most pedestrians loved the scramble, most drivers hated it. Since Barnes's time, traffic engineers have fought the crossings on the basis that they create too much congestion, guided largely by level-of-service metrics that prize vehicle flow over all over types of movement. Meanwhile walking speeds slowed to 3.5 feet-per-second overthe years, requiring even longer pedestrian breaks. Conflicts can occur when pedestrians don't hold for the all-clear because they're accustomed to crossing with traffic.

This gradual change of heart toward the Barnes Dances culminated in Denver's decision to remove them last year — despite the city's love for the man himself.

Barnes's former homes may have turned on the scramble, but it's making a bit of a comeback in a number of cities around the world. Toronto launched its first one in 2008, London built diagonal crossings in Wood Green in 2010, and a number of American cities are reintroducing the concept as well, including Washington, D.C. The District brought the Barnes Dance to 7th and H streets NW, in Chinatown, a couple years back (via WTOP):

So far so good, says George Branyan, pedestrian coordinator for the District Department of Transportation, who calls the crossing an "enhanced Barnes Dance." Unlike a classic scramble, the district allows pedestrians to walk with traffic during a green light and protects them from conflicts by prohibiting turns. The intersection might have lost some vehicle capacity, says Branyan, but that was a small price to pay — especially considering that the intersection has more walkers (30,000 a day) than cars (27,000).

"This is a unique situation that we felt needed a unique solution," he says. "We have had some angry calls about the turn restrictions (by drivers who have received tickets for doing it), but overall it seems to be working well."

Top image: DC's Barnes Dance by Flickr user thisisbossi

Eric Jaffe is a contributing writer to The Atlantic Cities and the author of A Curious Madness (2014) and The King's Best Highway (2010). He lives in New York. All posts »

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