Sunday, January 16, 2011

Pedestrians First: Keep It Simple, Make It Absolute


Last year two broken elbows forced me to rely on walking to get around the neighborhood and city. I had to forgo the daily bicycling and occasional driving, and I hesitated to rub shoulders, much less elbows, on packed Muni buses. Walking was the remaining, affordable option, and it seemed a reliably safe way to reach my destinations -- until I started doing it.

Twice a week I made the half-hour trek to and from physical therapy, and I walked to visit friends, shop for groceries, and get to cafes. But what I found is that the North Panhandle is no haven of safe street crossing. When I used crosswalks -- entering with a green light and the right-of-way -- drivers often pushed through too close in front or behind me. Others raced to stop signs with little indication they would slow down in time. Some only stopped once they had blocked the crosswalk all together, especially with those narrow pedestrian crossings now along Divisadero. Too frequently others would yell at me to get out of the way. Many were holding cell phones while driving.

Usually I walked in the late morning or early afternoon, and I didn't encounter many bicyclists. But occasionally I didn't know what cyclists spinning toward me at a good clip would actually do: hit me in the crosswalk or maneuver around me. Other times cyclists took corners so fast I didn't think they could see me crossing. The problem intersections weren't just those along the traffic corridors like Divisadero, Fell, Masonic or Turk. The local, neighborhood streets posed problems as well, just often enough to make me wary. Granted, sporting a broken arm had me feeling vulnerable, but the risks from other road users were pretty damn real and more frequent than I had expected.

The several weeks of walking for transportation made me more aware of pedestrian safety. How could I be more pedestrian-aware when I'm on wheels? How can those travelling around me avoid intimidating or hitting and injuring pedestrians? I'm not suggesting constant threats and mayhem exist on our neighborhood streets and at our intersections, but ask people who walk here and elsewhere in the city regularly -- and especially people with an injury or physical disability -- whether they feel motorists and cyclists frequently put them at risk.

I know that better street design and traffic calming measures are essential to stop the speeding that leads to collisions and threatens people on foot. I think greater enforcement and new legislation are needed to convince motorists and cyclists that dangerous use of the road will cost them dearly. But while we wait for -- or work for -- structural change, better bike facilities, better laws to protect vulnerable users of the road, and better campaigns to influence behavior, the most effective intervention is our own resolve.

For me, the easiest way to stay pedestrian-aware now that I am on wheels again is to adhere to my own basic rule of the road:
Pedestrians First -- Keep It Simple, Make It Absolute
Call it a resolution, a reminder, or a mantra. It requires careful, mindful driving and biking all the time. It means anticipating risks, always being sure an intersection is clear before rolling through it, not cutting in front of or closely behind someone in the crosswalk, and staying behind the stop line at a red light. It means keeping priorities clear. Pedestrians can be unpredictable, slow, careless, or clueless, but they don't deserve to be intimidated, injured or killed because of their behavior.

Pedestrian advocates may counter that my resolution is already the law of the land, but the laws don't seem to be working, not with the pedestrian injury and death statistics as high as they are in San Francisco. A pedestrian first code sets a higher standard, a commitment to do no harm to people who cannot or choose not to travel on wheels. And those of us biking or driving should protect ourselves: do we want to live with the fact that we damaged or ended someone's life because of our distracted, careless, or aggressive behavior?

Sometimes we need to adopt our own code of safe behavior. In my opinion, now is one of those times.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this contribution to the budding dialogue (as opposed to the well-established mumbled discontent) regarding the on-street relationship between pedestrians, cyclists, public transit and personal automobiles. As we at the Wigg Party pursue improvements to the Wiggle, we hear over and over from residents along the path that they are upset with the conduct of bicyclists, while the ills of motorized vehicles are already well-known. It seems that the most effective recourse we have to solving these issues is a heightened public dialogue around this very issue. Well done.