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City Uses Haiku to Promote Traffic Safety

By Jeff Mays | November 29, 2011 4:32pm | Updated on November 29, 2011 5:40pm
John Morse's signs and haiku's are designed to promote traffic safety.
John Morse's signs and haiku's are designed to promote traffic safety.
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DNAinfo/Jeff Mays

HARLEM — Please pay attention/When traversing the walkway/It could save your life.

That's the message the Department of Transportation is sending with its new "Curbside Haiku" safety program, which combines images and haikus by artist John Morse in an effort to increase pedestrian and traffic safety.

The colorful 8-inch square signs with the traditional Japanese form of haiku which restricts poems to 17 syllables depict images such as a bicyclist flying off of his bicycle after crashing into a car door. Morse's haiku for that image reads: "A sudden car door/Cyclist's story rewritten./Fractured narrative."

"We are looking for ways to get through to the public so they pay more attention," said DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan at the unveiling at the Studio Museum in Harlem.

"New Yorkers are innoculated from messages. What we've learned is something more innovative or with a bit of humor is more eye-catching," added Sadik-Khan.

Paid for with a state grant and a surcharge motorists face after being convicted of driving while intoxicated, the 216 signs will be posted on light poles and public parking lots at a dozen high-crash intersections around the city. Ten of the haikus are in English and two are in Spanish.

In Community Board 10, where the Studio Museum is located, 21 people were killed or severely injured from 2006 to 2010 as a result of a traffic accident. Another 29 people were severely injured.

Half the signs will have haikus attached and the other half will have a QR code linked to the haiku that can be scanned with a smartphone.

Morse said his 12 designs were designed to bring together "public art and public awareness."

"It's a very crowded city and we need to share the street," said Morse.

Morse, who has homes in Atlanta and the East Village, said he wants to emphasize how important it is to keep yourself safe. Too often, he said, pedestrians are preoccupied by their smartphones to watch where they are walking.

One of his pieces depicts the pedestrian from the crosswalk signs broken into pieces on a target. "Oncoming Cars rush/ Each a 3-ton bullet./ And you, flesh and bone," reads the haiku associated with the image.

"It says 'think about the fragility of your body'," said Morse. "You're just a human. You're nothing against these cars."

The idea for the DOT's signs came after Morse posted poetry on what are known as "bandit" signs in Atlanta. The signs, usually stationed on the side of the road, promise things like quick weight loss or easy home loans.

In 2010, Morse installed 500 of the signs at busy intersections throughout Atlanta. But instead of grandiose promises, the signs contained haikus. "Lose Ugly Weight Fast!!/Feel Happier! Healthier!/ Dump your bigotry," read one of the signs.

Sadik-Khan contacted him and asked him to consider a similiar project for New York City. Morse agreed, but said poetry by committee wasn't his idea of fun. Morse submitted 25 designs and haikus and the DOT chose the 12 they liked best.

Morse recived a $5,000 honorarium for his work which the DOT will also sell to benefit its Safe Streets Fund.

"I'm not telling you anything you don't know. I'm saying it in a way you may not have heard," said Morse.

On West 125th Street between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and Lenox Avenue, Morse's work is posted at a mid-avenue crossing. The sign reads: "8 million swimming,/ The traffic rolling like waves./ Watch for undertow."

Latasha White, 19, a student at Richmond Hill High School in Queens, said she liked the sign.

"It makes me be a little more careful," she said. "I think it should be bigger because I didn't notice it at first."

Queenie Banks, 36, a hairdresser, said she liked the sign's message of safety and caution.

"People just rush into traffic," said Banks who also wished the signs were larger. "But it makes the city prettier and will help a lot of people."