Friday, June 17, 2011

Too kind to the pedestrian?

The steam came out of my ears as I heard these words coming out of the mouth of the new radio talk guy from out of town: "We're a little bit too pedestrian friendly in Chicago." I came close to doing something I've never done before, calling up the yak-meister on the air and tell him he was full of crap. But as he was disposing of callers that disagreed with him, I saw little point.

His rant was inspired by the city's announcement about rethinking some pedestrian crosswalks in order to give people on foot more time to cross the street in a safer environment. This would include traffic lights at intersections turning red for 14 seconds every other minute for vehicular traffic in both directions, allowing pedestrians to cross the intersection in either direction, in some cases diagonally.

Radio-guy claimed that we already have too many laws that benefit the rights of pedestrians over those of drivers, "It seems that drivers have more headaches than pedestrians" he said.

Now I for one, don't see much problem with that.

One of the callers expressed frustration about having to stop at stop signs for pedestrian crosswalks in shopping mall parking lots, as it wastes so much gas. He then suggested they have stop signs for the pedestrians instead adding: "people should yield as much as cars."

Interesting choice of words there, it seems he's saying that cars should have the same rights as people. I didn't know that cars had any rights at all!

On the surface, the argument makes some sense; everybody should observe the rules of the road equally, that way, everybody will be safe.

Thinking about it for a second or two however, pedestrians, bicyclists, are motorists are definitely NOT equal.

In a grudge match between an automobile and a pedestrian, I'm taking the automobile every time. Between a car and a bike? Same result. Clearly in the battle over the rules of the road, the greater burden of responsibility has to lie with the person in control of the bigger, faster vehicle, in other words, the person capable of doing the most damage.

This bit of common sense has been with us ever since the invention of the automobile. In short, the pedestrian has the right of way. Apparently, the out of town yaptrap wants to change all that.

Were it not for automobiles and other motor vehicles, there would be no need for rules of the road. There are no legally binding rules of the sidewalk for pedestrians. In my entire life, I have never heard horrifying tales of accidents involving hit and run pedestrians.

On the very crowded lakefront bicycle path that I use daily, you have pedestrians, joggers, dog walkers, as well as people using any number modes of wheeled transportation devices, all traveling at different speeds and trajectories. Chaotic as it is, a few unwritten hints such as ride on the right, pass on the left are sufficient. Using these tips, most people get by quite nicely. That is not to say that accidents don't occur. Some of my worst bike accidents (a few of them admittedly my own fault) happened on the bike path. But with the exception of where the bike path crosses streets with automobile traffic, it's extremely rare that we hear of accidents resulting in serious injury or death.

Obviously the same cannot be said about our roads and highways. The good news is that from 2009 to 2010, the number of traffic fatalities in the U.S. dropped three percent. Unfortunately automobile accidents took the lives of more than 32,000 people in the United States last year. That is not to mention the incredible toll taken on the environment from automobiles and the apparatus needed to sustain them.

To prove he's not biased, the guy on the radio pointed out that he is not only a driver but also a pedestrian and a bicyclist. Well I do all three as well, in fact I listened to his rant while driving. Whenever I get behind the wheel, I adhere to the rules of the road in order to protect the safety of my fellow drivers as well as my own. I give bicyclists a wide berth and am always looking out for pedestrians, especially children darting unexpectedly into traffic. The knowledge that I could conceivably maim or kill another human being if I make even a small mistake while driving, gives me pause and is never far from my mind. I can't imagine how anyone driving a car can't have those same thoughts, but after many years of life experience, it is clear that many do not.

When I ride my bike I'm equally conscious of yielding the right of way to pedestrians, but I don't worry about being much threat to motorists or other bicyclists. And when I'm a pedestrian, I don't think that I'm much of a threat at all. How anyone can see the burden of responsibility for these three activities as equal is beyond my understanding.

That's not to say at all that I condone reckless behavior for pedestrians and bicyclists. Everyone is ultimately responsible for his or her own safety, not to mention the safety of others. In the case of an accident, it's of little consequence who is at fault if someone is seriously injured or killed.

Much of the grief coming from disgruntled drivers has to do with the undeniable fact that traffic is getting worse. But can anyone tell me with a straight face that the main reason for bad traffic is all the bikes and pedestrians on the road?

That's ridiculous of course, traffic is bad because of all the CARS on the road. I've linked to this page before and couldn't resist linking it again. Scroll down and check out the side by side pictures, one of forty people and forty cars taking up an entire city block, and the other of the same forty people and a city bus that can contain them all, obviously taking up far less space. Now picture those forty people without the bus, as pedestrians. Imagine how little space they take up. A motorist with any sense at all should be happy when people give up their cars in order to walk or ride their bikes. I've said it before and I'll say it again, no driver ever has this lament: "boy if only there were more cars on the road."

No I think the aggravation comes from something much deeper in the human psyche. It's the idea that somebody else is able to do something you're not, as if these whining drivers are saying to anybody who is willing to listen: "Gee mom, it's not fair, Jimmy gets to go through the red light and I don't."

Like any good mother, in the spirit of our new mayor the city is telling them: "It's OK Johnny, you'll still be able to get to where you're going before Jimmy does. Now have some milk and a cookie, go to bed, and shut the f--- up."

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