Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Pedestrian Book of Wrongs - How Not to Cross the Street

I've been thinking for a long time about transportation behavior. As I become older, I seem to get more impatient and frustrated with the inconveniences and irritations of driving, both on freeways and hiways, as well as on city and suburban streets. As our environment becomes more and more crowded, each day is increasingly a negotiation of interruptions, delays, mishaps, ill-tempered dialogues, etc. 

When I was a kid growing up in Richmond, California (age 4-7), our grammar school had a formal demonstration provided by the local police department. It was meant to be frightening, so that the students wouldn't forget it. All the students were lined up on both sides of the big black-top playground, and a patrol car, driven by an officer, was accelerated from one end, up to a speed, say, of 35 mph, and then the brakes were applied precipitously, causing the car to slide, sideways, about a hundred feet, burning rubber all the way. This was frightening to watch, not least because we knew what was coming. (Probably, today, such an event wouldn't be allowed, for liability and safety reasons.) The point of the demonstration was to show us kids how difficult an automobile is to stop suddenly. We were told with methodical deliberateness: "Always look both ways before crossing the street. Always wait for cars to pass before negotiating a cross walk. Never cross in the middle of the street." These imprecations were delivered with grave seriousness. On the other hand, bicycle training--behavior and law--was completely neglected in those years (1950's thru 1970's). Most kids didn't bother to license their bikes, and we navigated "by the seat of our pants," hardly aware of hazards or regulation. 

I'm not sure when, or why, common sense pedestrian behavior began to be abandoned, but it has steadily deteriorated over the decades. In the Greater (San Francisco) Bay Area where I've lived most of my life, it has gotten to the point that most people have either completely forgotten safe practice, or vigilantly flaunt risky or unlawful behavior(s). Perhaps this has something to do with the demonization of the automobile, as if cars, and those who have the audacity to drive them, are somehow to be despised or "put in their place." 

In any event, driving on any urban or suburban street in the Bay Area has truly become an adventure. In poorer neighborhoods, almost anyone is likely either to stride boldly into traffic, often not even bothering to look in either direction beforehand, or playing chicken by daring drivers to stop suddenly. People routinely will cross against a light, or in the middle of the street, as if they had a right and privilege superior to vehicular traffic. On boulevards or four-lane avenues, pedestrians on islands or median-strips will unexpectedly and without warning simply wade into busy traffic lanes. Frequently, in my experience, even if there are no vehicles following my own, pedestrians will insist on crossing in front of me. And those who seem to flaunt law and safety are often those who seem incapable of picking up their feet, choosing instead to amble lazily along, as if to thumb their nose at those they have chosen to inconvenience. 

Women with baby carriages will often push the cart in front of them, directly in the path of moving vehicles, as if the carriage were a spearhead to clear the way. I sometimes wonder if they don't just wheel empty carriages around to facilitate quicker crossings, except that playing chicken by pushing your own infant in front of moving traffic would seem to violate a much higher moral standard.

Automobiles are expensive. Gas is expensive. Most people don't drive as a form of recreation, but out of necessity. Despite our modern technology, driving an automobile safely and with control is a risky business. Acting in a responsible way costs pedestrians nothing. Stopping unnecessarily or in emergency is expensive and dangerous. Our culture is based on the automobile--our whole way of life is made possible by its efficiency and power. If we have too many cars, it's because there are too many people. 

It's okay to hate the automobile, but it's important to respect it, too. Cars are dangerous, and expensive and crucial to our way of life. 

Pedestrians need to follow the rules, and show some consideration and good manners. Just because you are on foot, and a driver has wheels, doesn't mean you are automatically on superior moral ground, or deserve special favors. As a fallback, the law entitles pedestrians to the right of way, but that's just a legal maneuver. If you think logically about it, vehicles always have the right of way, because a pedestrian doesn't stand a chance in a collision with a car. What idiot pedestrian would seriously play chicken with a three thousand pound vehicle? And yet that's precisely what happens all the time on our city streets.   

I'd like to see police ticket pedestrians with the same alacrity they do drivers of vehicles. 

Also, they could start ticketing bicycle riders too. I'm not keeping my fingers crossed, though. 


eddie watkins said...

As an urban pedestrian I almost always assert my right of right-of-way. Having to cross a highway on-ramp twice every day on my way to and from work, I need to; if I didn't not only would my ire build up as I waited for lines of cars as they took away my rights, but I'd have to leave home even earlier to get to work on time.

Of course I'm also a reasonable pedestrian. I check the line of cars and if the timing's right I let a single car by ahead of me. But then there's often the a-hole driver who thinks he (usually a he) has the right of way and tries to intrude on my rights. In these cases I often play chicken with the driver, since they're usually starting from a stop and haven't come up to speed yet.

The architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Inga Saffron, is always bringing up that what makes downtowns are the pedestrians, and I agree. Pedestrians should rule the city streets, as long as they follow the rules. But many pedestrians can't even read a simple pedestrian traffic signal, or they're talking on their phones and are oblivious.

People should be encouraged to walk whenever possible - for the health of the planet and for the health of themselves.

More people should ride bikes too.

There's an urban bicycle culture phenomenon that (or should that be "which"?) I've observed a few times. It's called Critical Mass and usually occurs on a Friday afternoon rush hour. Hundreds of bicyclists gather on main arteries for no other purpose than to clog vehicular traffic. En masse they pedal very slowly in front of long lines of angry commuters. Something about it excites and satisfies me, even as I recognize what a jerky thing it is. But the ideal purpose is to simply bring bicyclists to the attention of drivers and demonstrate that in the eyes of the traffic laws bicycles are the equals of cars.

Steven Fama said...

Dear Curtis,

The prefatory clause in the second sentence of your key paragraph -- and specifically the words, "In poorer neighborhoods almost anyone . . .," suggests a bias or perceptional gap that I find troubling.

You must not spend too much time in the San Francisco financial district, or -- closer to where you are -- Berkeley's Telegraph or University Avenue corridors or even the short commercial stretch of Fourth Street, to name but a few of dozens of examples of not "poorer neighborhoods" where "almost anyone" can be seen, routinely, engaging in less than sensible walking habits.

Further, even a jaywalker, once jaywalking -- has the right of way -- you gotta stop. It all goes back to driving being a "privledge." We in cars have no entitlement vis-a-vis the person on foot. Period, end of story, put on the brakes.

And now, coming at your topic in a completely different way, I will admit that I often state that while an undergrad at Cal-Berkeley in 1974-1978, I majored in English and minored in jaywalking.

I was god damn quick back then.

Curtis Faville said...

Good comment, Eddie.

I think the problem of the so-called "conflict" between ridership and pedestrian access is a false dichotomy.

In Europe, where cities and regions developed centuries before the automobile was invented, there's always been an attractive "pedestrian" milieu. During the 1940's and 1950's, American city planners, romanticizing about this paradigm, created a whole movement in this country towards the adoption of that older urban model, emphasizing pedestrian "zones" and structures; and which blamed the automobile for many of the ills and problems of contemporary life.

But American cities, and of course our suburban matrices (built upon the automobile), were either adapted to, or based upon the automobile culture which flowered throughout the 20th Century.

There's no point in pretending that we don't have a car culture, because we do. The horse and buggy days are gone. Gone too are our railroads. Americans have a "romance" with the automobile which is many times stronger than the city planning "romance" with its artificial "pedestrian" culture. These cute inner city pedestrian malls have been a miserable failure almost everywhere they've been tried here, because they fly in the face of our predominant mode of life.

If I want to go out to eat, or to a bookstore, or to a movie, or commute to work, I can't take a bus, or a commuter train, or walk to those places, because I live too far away. That's not my "fault" any more than someone's not being able to afford an automobile is their "fault" either.

As a pedestrian, I try to act in such a way that cars aren't inconvenienced. Drivers appreciate this. What's the point of my forcing someone to stop, when I have the freedom to grant them free unhindered passage?

Pedestrian centers don't work in America, because Americans don't, by and large, live in cities any more. It might be nice if they could, but.... Whenever I go to San Francisco, which isn't often anymore, I always look forward with gloom to the hassles I'll face: Congestion, parking problems.

With respect to bicycles, if you haven't seen what can happen with a dominant bike culture, you should think twice about glorifying them. In India, where they're legion, it creates an unbelievable headache on the roads, as cars, trucks, rickshaws, bikes and scooters clog public streets. There are lots of injuries, and it's a wonder any one gets anywhere.

Probably, at some point in the future, we'll run out of petroleum, and/or find some replacement source of locomotion. In the meantime, it's futile to think we can just beat back the automobile by ignoring its advantages, or trying to make it so inconvenient that people are frustrated from using it, or that we can transform our technological infrastructure through good vibes. It doesn't work that way.

You can't have Venice in San Francisco. I'm not sure, either, that Americans would want the kind of confined culture that a pre-industrial age implies. I love Venice, but it's just a kind of tourist trap, a Disneyland for cultured grown-ups. Thank god I can drive to New Mexico, or to Portland. I wouldn't want to be stuck driving my mule up and down the road every day. Would you?

We want it all, but we can't have it all.

Curtis Faville said...

Thanks, Steven, for the comment. It's just what I was looking for.

I drive through Oakland twice a week (at least), and the "pedestrian" right of way is well-established there. These are, many of them, homeless or marginalized folks (some with shopping carts). There is a culture of "being in the street" which I accept as endemic to certain neighborhoods. It's empirical. Jon Carroll has often, semi-humorously, noted it in his columns for the Chronicle. But irresponsible pedestrian behavior isn't confined to bad neighborhoods, of course. I never implied that.

For their own safety, and for the convenience of vehicular passage, pedestrians should follow basic rules, for their own safety, and for efficient flow. The idea that pedestrians and bikers have a bone to pick with every vehicle they encounter is silly, and should be discouraged. It's a stupid attitude.

Most of the bike-riders in the East Bay show an unhealthy disregard for all traffic rules, routinely running stop-signs and stop-lights, riding on sidewalks and crosswalks, "wandering" crazily into oncoming traffic, or simply being obnoxious. These scofflaws aren't doing anyone a favor by their behavior. The street isn't a demolition derby, or a debating forum.

We can't change our predominant mode of transportation just by creating inconveniences, either as city planners or individual pedestrians or bike-riders.

We need to reduce population, suburban sprawl, and retreat from the commuter paradigm. That will go a long ways towards solving the symptomatic problems which follow.

eddie watkins said...

I'm definitely not anti-car. I've always had one, and recently argued against my wife's desires to rent a car whenever we needed one. With a child and a car seat and two dogs I'm always taking places to go for walks, renting a car after working all day and populating it with my brood would be too much of a pain.

I don't know what you mean when you say people don't live in cities. As far as I can tell urban populations are in a constant state of flux, with periodic "suburban flights" and re-entries by empty-nesters. Not to mention influxes by immigrants. Philly's Mexican population sky-rocketed after 9-11 after they fled NYC. I couldn't get a decent burrito in Philly until after 9-11. Also, based on my observations there are more young families raising their kids in Philadelphia than there were 15 years ago. I can't talk for other cities in this regard.

I'm not talking about pedestrian malls, which I agree are silly things that hinder urban flow, but simply people walking the sidewalks and crossing the streets as they add an element of visible human life to cities. Drivers of vehicles should recognize that these pedestrians (many of whom are drivers themselves who have just parked!) are what make cities attractive: signs of human life and desires in action.

I'm actually not totally pro bicycle, and would not like to live in a city dominated by bikes. But bikes are part of the great mix of the population, and in smallish doses also inject a sense of life to the streets.

Cars are just too impersonal looking. People in cars think they can be clearly seen as people because they can clearly see the people outside of their cars, but actually it's often very hard for a pedestrian to see the human behind the wheel. Tis adds to some of the pedestrian/driver tensions.

Cities are mixing bowls and all forms of transportation should be able to co-exist. But one of the problems is that drivers of vehicles often have a dominant attitude because they're so big and potentially dangerous, and this culture has programmed people to think that cars are extensions of their bodies and personalities.

I don't envy you having to search out parking and negotiate other kinds of non-vehicular traffic when you enter a city, but that's just the way it is, and the way it should be. I've heard of some (maybe European?) cities trying out parking taxes and other techniques to get people to park outside the city and take public transportation in, but I'm not sure how many Americans would want to do that.

In the meantime I am going to continue to assert my rights as a pedestrian.

Charles Shere said...

The American penchant for riding rather than walking, and perhaps more specifically the Californian, goes back a long way. Richard Henry Dana noted, in Two Years Before the Mast, that Californios wouldn't walk even if they were simply visiting the neighbor: they wouldn't go anywhere but on horseback.
I'm about to spend a month in The Netherlands, rarely in a car. I look forward to it.

Curtis Faville said...

Well, Charles, Europe is a special case.

Except, I suppose, for Germany, where drivers are said to be allowed to go over 100 miles per hour.

My wildest experiences were in Chicago, Boston, and rural Italy. Italian male drivers seem to regard road rage as a badge of valiant honor. The tailgating there is the worst I've ever seen.

Have fun in Amsterdam. Cars--

Who needs'em?

Graham Foust said...

Two weeks after moving to California, my wife Amy and I got ticketed by three officers--to the tune of several hundred dollars--for walking against a signal in Berkeley. This was at 8:00 in the morning on a Saturday; the streets were completely deserted. They also chastised Amy for not carrying her driver's license with her. (We'd ridden BART.)

When Amy asked "Is this what you guys do all day? Bust people for looking both ways and crossing empty streets?" the cop replied "Ma'am, we prefer to think of it as saving lives."

Curtis Faville said...


I certainly would not wish this upon anyone. I'm sorry it happened to you. It doesn't sound as if you were really doing anything that deserved correction.

Tickets are a bitch. I tend to believe that enforcement has little or no bearing on safety or the public convenience; it's just another form of taxation, if a little less fair and consistent than other forms. Watch what the police pay most attention to: Money, and public relations. The rest is usually subject to corruption.

The point of my blog was to suggest that people ought to use common sense and obey traffic signals; and not, in a manner of speaking, take the law into their own hands, simply because they feel a vigilante's righteous zeal.