WTF Are Those Yellow Dots on the Street?

May 02 at 12pm

By Noah Sanders

One would assume that the average street, the actual nitty-gritty asphalt that we trod upon a daily basis, wouldn’t be that interesting. But take a good long gander down at the road sometime and there’s a veritable morse code of dots and dashes and other symbols under our cars, bikes, and feet.

A friend of mine once told me – possibly under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol – that the government was using a type of yellow paint made of tiny colored sensors that when applied would record statistical information to help improve our city’s traffic flow. Because technology scares me, I managed to bury the information deep in the unused recesses of my gray matter, never to be dredged up again.

Until this week, when at the prompting of a reader, I was asked to decipher the yellow circles painted on San Francisco streets. As it turns out, these foot-wide yellow dots (some with short little lines sticking out of them, making them look like a combination between Pac-Man and a cartoon bomb) are all over the place. Once you see one, you’ll see them everywhere, especially at major intersections that are common thoroughfares for Muni buses that are electrically powered by spring-loaded “trolley poles” connected by a web of wires that criss-cross above our heads.

Now, I would love to believe that our government is currently instituting a series of transportation protocols using the benefits of technology to better our commutes, but, c’mon now, we live in San Francisco. I’m happy if the traffic lights on a long stretch of road are timed. It turns out the adorable little dots are actually a way of communicating with the aforementioned Muni drivers. The circles are placed on the ground a few feet in front of where their poles will strike the wire junctions at intersections that allow buses to turn and still maintain constant contact with the juice-giving grid of wires. Their placement allows for the drivers to, hopefully, acknowledge what’s ahead and not make any sudden movements and lose power to their vehicle. Next time you see the dots, look up, looming in the air above you will surely be a complex connection of thick wires. 

Sure, from my experience, more than a few bus drivers aren’t exactly reading the dot-language, but hey, it’s out there, at least one small step forward in bettering the public transportation of San Francisco.

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