While we normally think of traffic signals as passive actors in our navigation of our city’s streets, they work to direct the interactions between drivers, bikers, and pedestrians. In what ways can the digital signage improve or diminish the walkability of a city? An exploration around this question quickly morphed into playful explorations of the function of traffic signals—not just their surface function, directing traffic patterns, but how they mediate our relationships with others on the road.

I created these projects during semester-long independent work in the CMU MDes Computational Lab.

How do traffic signals mediate our interaction with other travelers?

Project I:  Intersection / Collision

Typically, traffic signals function as a mediator, allowing pedestrians and cars to avoid interacting with each other. Crosswalks are the intersections where cars and pedestrians overlap. Otherwise, the two remain in their own separate channels. Sometimes, this intersection creates a collision. On Twitter, you can watch as people share experiences with these intersections—not with those who also experienced the intersection but with their followers. Does Twitter serve a similar function to the traffic signals? By matching two tweets—one from a person writing ‘almost hit someone with my car’ and one from someone writing ‘almost got hit by a car today,’ we create another near collision…

Project II: Traffic Signals as Mediator

The more I explored traffic signals, the more I began to understand their role in shaping our behavior as pedestrians and motorists. With the advent of the smart city, much ado is made about collecting data and refining traffic signals to respond to fluctuating traffic patterns. But I also wanted to explore the human side of traffic signals.

This game sets up a prisoner’s dilemma-type scenario, where players must decide to move or stay based not only on what the signal tells them, but also on what they think their partner might do—reminding us that navigating the city is as much about our relationship with each other as with the technology (all while, hopefully, having fun!).

Game Play Phase I: Watch the Signals and Make a Choice

Players join the game online and sync their phones. Each player holds their phone up to their head and their companion is shown one of six signals that either tell them to wait or go. Players must decide to follow or ignore the signal that they are shown.

Game Play Phase II: Assess the Choices and Move Again

Players assess whether they followed or ignored the signals. They move their pieces based on whether they and their partner ignored or followed the signals using the provided grid.