Monday, May 1, 2017

Vanishing Seconds

When the weather is not too hot for it, I walk to or from work about three days a week. The distance is a little less than three miles by the shortest route, which follows 16th St. NW and requires about an hour. Long ago, I learned the timing of the lights on U through P Streets. At an easy walk, the pedestrian who begins to cross U St. just as the light changes to green will arrive at the next five lights just as they turn. It may be possible to do the same at a very brisk walk, but I haven't tried it.

There have been times that I was in the middle of a block coming toward the next light and thought by the number of seconds shown on the pedestrian signal that I could hurry and cross. This has never worked, though, and eventually I noticed that the light will, at least some of the time, jump ten seconds suddenly. Today I watched one light, probably at S St., as the seconds display went from 16 to 6. I wonder idly whether the count ever runs down all the way by seconds, or whether the jump is constant on these lights. I think that I have seen the same behavior at one of the L St. intersections, a bit southwest of these.


  1. I like this--it's such a particular set of observations and makes you seem such a particular sort of person. Moreover, your mapping is quite complex since it is not just spatial but dependent on time as well. And it reminds me of a friend who did a psychology phd that dealt with how men and woman map the world and lay it out in memory, and I believe (if I can remember!) that she found that women mapped by landmarks while men mapped more abstractly. No doubt that's a hideously reductive summation, but you certainly do map by number, route, and seconds.

    1. Well, thank you. I have heard of such studies, and one I remember purported to explain why men never believe that they are lost.

      Washington, DC, is for the most part laid out in a grid to suit Descartes: four quadrants, numbered streets running north and south, alphabetic streets running east and west--the founding generation belonged solidly to the Enlightenment. There are plenty of exceptions, notably the avenues named after states and running every which way; but they are few enough to make navigation generally straightforward.