Friday, November 17, 2006

I'm walking here

While taking a tour of the Macalaster College campus area in St. Paul earlier this month, I noticed a nice planted median down some busy streets, with a cut-out to accomodate a pedestrian walkway at key points where the street bisected the campus. But there were no painted crosswalks and none of the cars were stopping for students waiting to cross. I inquired of my host, and it turns out there is no state law in Minnesota requiring motorists to yield to pedestrians in a mid-block, unsignaled crosswalk. The infrastructure for a pedestrian-friendly environment is there, but the laws work at cross purposes. I've been thinking about this a lot lately -- the way we're struggling with a better built environment in a problematic system of transport rules. I think it's clear more people want walkable, mixed-use, more urban neighborhoods, but they have to be able to walk around them safely and with pleasure. In Massachusetts, the yield-to-pedestrians law is routinely flouted. Coming out of the World Trade Center the other day on Northern (or I should say Seaport) Boulevard, I entered the bright-white crosswalk with the neon-yellow sign nearby indicating pedestrian crosswalk, and a westbound driver, on a cell phone, actually sped up and just missed me in the crosswalk. Rhode Island plates. No amount of visual regulation was going to penetrate our muscle-headed friend from the Ocean State.
What if the answer to rules that are ignored is to take away the rules? Europe is exploring just that -- the Dutch concept of the woonerf, which blends the turf of the car and the walker, and the even more intriguing notion that unsafe is safe: that if you take away the blaring signs and signals and rules and danger warnings, drivers, bicyclists and pedestrians will revert to a more natural state, of slowing down to assess each situation, make eye contact, and proceed with deliberate caution. The way you go slowly down Newbury Street, because there are pedestrians and all sorts of other activities all around. The safest intersection is the one without any signs or signals, where everyone has to figure it out every time. If there wasn't a law telling drivers they either had to stop or they didn't have to stop for people walking in a crosswalk, common courtesy and human nature might take over. When we make eye contact we can be incredibly deferential. The only question is whether it's too late in the US for a change in culture. Here's a link to a piece on the relevant conversation in Europe:,1518,448747,00.html


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