“Don’t Walk!” A Brief Exchange With An Engineer

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Last night I grabbed drinks with a good friend in downtown Rochester. Knowing I was going to have a couple adult beverages, I decided to take a Lyft. The driver, a former traffic engineer, decided to give me an “education” on how roads and streets are designed.  It all began at a red light when someone crossed the street in front of us when he had a “Don’t Walk” signal.  The pedestrian’s direction of travel had a green light, but the crosswalk light did not change with the traffic light.  Most likely, the walker did not press the “beg button” to activate the crosswalk signal.  Yes, we still have to do that on many streets in our city. 
 
“See? That guy crossed the street and he had the Don’t Walk Sign,” my driver said.  “These people are so (expletive) stupid.”
“He has the right of way from the traffic signal, he probably didn’t push the button to cross,” I replied.  “I don’t understand why those buttons exist, pedestrian signals should simply change with the traffic signals.”
“Hey if he wants to cross the street he needs to push the button, that’s all there is to it,” answered my driver.
“Cars don’t have to,” I said, smiling, knowing this was about to open up a whole can of worms.  Hey, we were close to my destination, I knew it wasn’t gonna be a long argument.
“Well that would just be ridiculous,” retorted my driver.  “When I was an engineer, we built city streets based on a series of algorithms that would allow traffic to move as quickly as possible… people want to get to where they are going as fast as possible, so if pedestrians want to cross, they have to push the button.”
“But what we are learning today is that the exclusive prioritization of automobiles in our cities today is not healthy for the urban environment,” I answered.  “Putting pedestrians, cyclists and buses first is key to creating a strong, walkable city landscape that welcomes residents and visitors to local businesses and destinations.  Engineering is certainly an important component of urban design, but it’s important to approach our streets from a multidisciplinary perspective.  Simply ensuring that car traffic moves smoothly is rarely the best way to approach city streets.”
“I suppose, but you look at pedestrians and all the crosswalks and signs we are putting up for them… but they are always breaking the law anyway,” said the driver in a frustrated tone.”
Still at the intersection, I looked around and smiled.  “That car has a headlight out.  That car is in the crosswalk.  That car just rolled through a right on red.  That car is stopped in the crosswalk.  That car is parked in a bike lane.  And with all due respect, a minute ago you were going 41 in a 30.  But all you saw was the pedestrian.”
“Well, yeah, I guess it’s all in how you see it,” the driver said.
I knew I had won this one.
In all fairness, he was a nice guy that was just seeing urban design from his career perspective, and I couldn’t fault him for that.  We all get stuck in our ruts.  Perhaps next time he questions a pedestrian, he’ll have our conversation in the back of his mind.
Or maybe not.  Changing long-held beliefs about what’s best for our cities is hard, and with many individuals, it’s impossible.  We do our best to continue the message of change as we revisit the real engines of progress in our cities today.
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