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Urban Design Volume One

A series (with a bit of history) about urban design artifacts — starting with the traffic cone.

Inspired by Roman Mars' 99% invisible, I decided to look at daily artifacts through a humanity centered lens. With a lot of construction around where I live, it felt like my road had more traffic cones than the road itself, and I must say the traffic cones are very well designed.

Annoyed with the wooden structures used to redirect traffic at the time, Los Angeles painter Charles D. Scanlon came up with the first iteration of what is now known as the traffic cone, in 1948. Since then, the design and the primary purpose have stayed the same — a hollow conical structure that is used to redirect traffic in a safe way. They are also known called pylons, witches' hats, road cones, highway cones, safety cones, channelizing devices, construction cones, and cones.


Good design improves lives while also maintaining that sweet balance between usability, feasibility, and viability, it's an augmentation to the human experience which would've been almost incomplete if it hadn't been for this product. The traffic cone, although under-appreciated and somewhat ignored, checks all of these boxes. It is an essential tool in the automotive era that we are a part of. They are built simultaneously for durability, visibility, stackability, portability and still cost less than a large Papa John’s pizza. They are environment friendly, with more and more being made from recycled plastic, and can be customized in terms of size and color depending on their purpose, be it for outdoors or indoors. The stability can be increased by adding heavy duty rubber to the base, while visibility can be increased by adding reflective collars. Traffic cones can survive vehicle impacts in the excess of 100 KMPH and still be usable or recyclable.


I would go as far as to say that these temporary traffic control devices have converged upon their best possible form, as we are also combating its one flaw, that they are easily stolen. They have found use beyond traffic direction and are used for indoor public use such as marking of-limit areas (out of order washroom) or dangerous conditions (wet floor). Owing to their versatility and usefulness, I believe that traffic cones are a well-designed product.

Traffic Cone Art

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Traditionally, but unofficially, the Wellington Statue in Glasgow is decorated with a traffic cone. The presence of the cone is given as the reason the statue is in the Lonely Planet 1000 Ultimate Sights guide (at number 229) as a "most bizarre monument".

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In 2007 the artist Dennis Oppenheim commemorated the traffic cone with a monumental sculpture of five five-metre-tall cones. They were installed temporarily in Miami, Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, and Seoul, Korea. This is a picture from Seattle.