As I age, there are two things that have become far more scarce. The ability to keep the weight off, and the time and energy to devour information tied to urbanism and general social science (which, in actuality, are mostly the same thing). So I’ve taken to long walks around my neighborhood in the evening with a set of earbuds, absorbing audiobooks such as The Upswing, The Generation Myth and Paved Paradise in an attempt to tackle both.
Tonight, on such a stroll, I approached the “T” intersection of Elmwood Avenue and Goodman… one being a 4-lane road where people consistently drive 10-15 mph beyond the speed limit of 30, and the other, the beginning of one of the main arteries into the city of Rochester. My walk took me across the latter, Goodman. Because I refuse to wear lights or neon gear, I looked both up Goodman for traffic approaching the intersection and to my left, looking for cars pulling into the turning lane for Goodman. My first concern was to make sure either there are no left turners from Elmwood to Goodman because, having to turn across multiple lanes of traffic, drivers rarely look one “layer” further for pedestrians. Seeing that a few cars were indeed making this transition, I forfeited my pedestrian priority status for my own safety and let the cars turn. Looking right, I saw four cars coming down Goodman, but I felt as though if I ran, I had enough time to get into the middle of the intersection in full view of the drivers’ headlights. After 20 seconds of navigating this series of safety deductions, I made it to the other side of the street.
What I realized once I got there was that I had absolutely no retention of anything from the audiobook I was listening to for the last 30-45 seconds. I had to hit the fifteen second “rewind” button several times to “re-read” the content. Attached to that realization was the fact that it only took about 20 seconds to wait for a good time to cross the street, but my mind was “gearing up” to do so for 10-20 seconds before that, and thus my attention to the audio book had shifted to my personal safety.
What’s the point? We all downplay the moments in our life where we as pedestrians and cyclists interact with cars. Parking lots, crosswalks, intersections… we think it’s an easy experience to navigate. But our brains know better, subconsciously focusing all of our attention to ensure self preservation in the face of real danger that we don’t even realize exists.
When people say “nobody walks here” or nobody bikes here,” this is why. It doesn’t feel good to ride with powerful vehicles in the road. It doesn’t feel good to play Frogger across dangerous intersections. So why are we surprised when people don’t engage in these activities?
The only way to change this is to create safer streets that are built to minimize vehicle speeds, prioritize vulnerable pedestrians, cyclists and transit riders. Only then will the experience above be mitigated, unlocking the full potential of our communities to become walkable, bike friendly places that attract small business growth and community togetherness.