Tuesday, May 29, 2007

An organic relationship

Last weekend we did one of those Boston things that tourists normally do: take a ride on the swan boats in the Public Garden. Stepping off at the end and walking past the gift shop set up at the dock, I noticed the blurb on the back of the classic book for sale, Make Way for Ducklings, in big letters that said: "Boston's busy streets are too dangerous for these eight ducklings!" But all around the park, pedestrians stepped into crosswalks and cars, taxis and trucks yielded. The foundation for this behavior has less to do with danger, fear, or enforcement, but a simple reality: that drivers and bikers and people on foot -- and ducklings -- share the public realm. They must deal with each other. Cities and their street networks encourage this kind of recognition, because drivers in these environments have either just become, or are about to be, pedestrians too (they have either parked, or are headed to their cars). But the strip mall near my neighborhood features a de facto woonerf as well, in front of Target and Home Depot. The slow speeds and yielding that goes on, I'm convinced, is because every driver knows he or she is about to cross, on foot, to the store entrances themselves; they expect the same courtesy. I thought of all this upon reading a story about how many crosswalks in Boston need a fresh coat of bright white paint. The message here of course is that drivers and pedestrians desperately need help managing a relationship that can occur more naturally; yes, the word "danger" is in the headline. There was also an incident in Baltimore of a car running into a sidewalk cafe, as if tables and chairs near a street was somehow an arrangement that was inherently unsafe. Context and design are important, but for subtle visual cues more than flashing lights and bright paint and the culture of danger and us vs. them. See www.walkinginfo.org for more ideas, though darned if they don't start from the premise of safety.


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