A few nights ago, I was having coffee with a friend in Rochester’s South Wedge neighborhood, your typical bohemian pocket of micro urbanity just a step away from a growing downtown. I sat facing the window as we sipped black coffee and talked… but every so often, I was distracted by an occasional car out of the corner window, who would pull up to the intersection between the tiny Caroline Street and the busier South Avenue, the main drag through “The Wedge.”
I noticed that nearly every car turning right onto South Aveenue from Caroline rolled through the crosswalk while looking left to see if there was any oncoming traffic. Here was a situation where, in one of the higher walking-traffic areas in the city, driver after driver neglected to even check for the presence of a pedestrian in or entering the crosswalk from the right. In fact, there were several occasions where someone was in the crosswalk and had to stop mid stride to avoid a vehicle that rolled right through. Of course, this isn’t an isolated event, this is life for anyone who regularly travels on foot. The anemic amount of respect that the average driver has for the crosswalk is the all-too-familiar reality we find ourselves in every single day.
Interestingly enough, streets used to be places where people, bikes, carts, buggies and cars all blended together with mass transit and other modes of transportation. An amazing article by Vox tells the story of streets as public spaces, not simply red carpets for heavy machines. When car ownership began to take hold in the 1920s, pedestrian deaths skyrocketed, especially ones involving children and the elderly. While citizens called for a speed limiter on all vehicles in an effort to end the carnage, auto makers and automobile stakeholders decided to put the onus on pedestrians to change instead. The crosswalk was born, clearly delineating the space between people and cars. Where people once ruled the streets, they were forced onto the adjacent sidewalks, and were ticketed for “jaywalking” if they did not cross the street in a designated area. Ad campaigns shaming people for jaywalking, along with the pressure on local municipalities to ticket pedestrians crossing the road in non-designated areas led to the current marginalization of humans walking on our American right-of-ways. Essentially, the space people could safely and legally occupy in cities and communities was literally being stolen by the car.
But that wasn’t enough. President Eisenhower’s Interstate system, and a wealth of other expressway projects bulldozed entire neighborhoods in nearly every city in the United States. This too, was driven by influence from big oil companies and auto makers, who were collectively chipping away at the human element in our cities in an effort to promote faster commute times, and a country where the automobile was the only practical choice… and make billions of dollars in the process.
Today, there is but one place left where cars and pedestrians can “safely” and legally share the road… the crosswalk. Sidewalks have narrowed and roads have grown. Space has been taken from people and given to cars, with the one last stronghold of pedestrian infrastructure where people are supposed to have the right-of-way over 3000+ pound machines is occasionally represented by a couple of paint slashes in the road that very few drivers actually respect.
As I stated in a recent podcast, there is a human trait that figures into this construct, whereby power, control and dominance beget further power, control and dominance. The more space we give to drivers, the more lanes that populate each road, the higher priority we place on cars over all other modes of transportation, the more drivers will assert their dominance over walkers, bikers and mass transit. The psychological makeup of the average human driver will never have enough space, enough power, or enough speed. Most drivers will, inevitably, become so desensitized to the entitlement that is the automobile and the infrastructure it inhabits that he or she will continue to assume command of as much space as possible, even if it belongs to another modality. The only places where drivers respect pedestrians, crosswalks and bike lanes are places where these modes transportation are prioritized at the same level as the car.
But as we know well, these places are few and far between, and are very difficult to create. Take away space for cars and parking, and you will surely face an angry mob of commuters who want to get to work as fast as possible, suburbanites who want easy and fast access to the places they enjoy, and business owners who still, despite data that shows otherwise, believe that automobile access equals financial success.
The one place in which cars and people absolutely have to blend is the place we disregard, disrespect and take for granted as much as any other space on our roadways. Crosswalks should be sacred places where life is appreciated, where responsibility to that life is exercised, and different modalities are respected. Crosswalks are the places where drivers should always be reminded that they are piloting heavy machinery that shares space with a living world. The crosswalk should be one of the last sacred places left where we all stop, slow down, and respect the power, beauty and importance of human life around us.