One year ago, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed a stone’s throw from my front door. She was crossing the street for a morning run. It was foggy. The driver didn’t see her.
Since then, the intersection where she died has been redesigned. It is now a three-way stop with modern LED lighting. Watching over the scene, there is a new flashing red beacon.
This sort of infrastructure is easy to take for granted. As a Commissioner for the City of Davis, I suppose I pay closer attention to these things that most people do. I’ve payed particular attention to this little piece of city infrastructure because I pass through it several times a day.
Something has changed there since the red beacon went up. Up and down the boulevard, for almost a mile, there are crossings to access the bicycle path. Drivers now stop and let me cross. They never did that before. I am not exaggerating when I say that wherever the beacon’s light falls, the feel of the street has changed. It’s no longer the tail end of a lonely country road. It’s a neighborhood street, and people act accordingly.
I would like to think that drivers feel the significance of the flashing beacon. I would like to think that they have noticed that the intersection has been redesigned. I would like to think that they know that Megan Glanville died there. In all likelihood, they are oblivious to these things. They stop and smile and waive me through anyway.
Good design matters. That’s why.
The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.
Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.
And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!
Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean’s verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o’er the restless surge.
Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o’ertaken mariner to save.
– The Lighthouse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
On a superficial level, a flashing red beacon is a utilitarian thing. If you look more closely, you will see that it is also a thing of beauty. It is an avatar of the compulsion we all feel to protect, to warn, to guide. The humble beacon is one of the better angels of our nature, sculpted with massive limbs of galvanized steel and eyes of electrically exuberant gallium phosphide. It sends our message out into the world, again, and again, and again.