There’s a lot to learn about a city from the sidewalk. As a pedestrian, the city’s attitude and personality is more tangible than when looking out from a car or building. Walking puts a pedestrian at eye level with the sights and sounds of the street. The speed of traffic, the size of buses, the crowdedness of walkways. It’s impossible receive, much less process, this information without being on the ground.
New York pedestrians know this well. An insatiable need to avoid wasted time makes walking with a local more than a simple stroll. Traffic lights are meant for cars, not people. When approaching a street to cross, if they’ve looked both ways and all is clear, the pedestrian would be foolish not to proceed. But intersections are only a small part of crossing the street. The majority of the city consists of blocks, the areas between intersections. And in New York, unlike most cities, these are almost exclusively one-way.
One way streets make New York an easier city to drive around. Cars don’t need to make left turns across traffic and the odd/even directional system makes navigating without a map trivial. For pedestrians, it leads to half the analysis needed before crossing. Look both ways becomes look one way. To cross 2nd Avenue, as traffic barrels downtown, a red light stops the flow and pedestrians begin crossing, whether at an intersection or not. Cars turn onto the avenue from side streets, but with only a few feet until encountering a red light, pedestrians seem to have the right of way. As red turns to green, the flow resumes and pedestrians head up or down the avenue until the next release.
It’s an efficient system, one that New Yorkers are proud of. Very rarely are streets completely empty, for when the cars stop, the people start.
San Francisco, on the other hand, is home to pedestrians of a different cut. Rather than hurrying to arrive at dinner two minutes earlier, San Franciscans take their time, enjoy the walk, enjoy the wait. Crosswalk entrances are often crowded with pedestrians, waiting for the walk signal to change from the halting red hand to the ambling white man. And the rebels who ignore the system, taking an opening in traffic as an invitation to cross, are more often than not outsiders, tourists, probably New Yorkers.
There are certainly downsides to the San Franciscan method, efficiency being at the top. Unlike New York, San Francisco is home to dozens, if not hundreds of four way stop signs. Combined with the crossing habits of pedestrians, these stop signs cause far more traffic because drivers must wait for both their counterparts driving in the perpendicular direction and pedestrians who walk too slow and make turning an absolute mess. Rather than cross when traffic allows, intersections organize the crossing to ensure cars and pedestrians will have to wait for one another. Coordinated inefficiency.
But life isn’t about crossing the street. Arriving at dinner a few minutes early can be great, but only if the cost outweighs the benefit. Crossing at any moment, whether a red light at an intersection or in the middle of an avenue, only happens after a number of decisions. First, although a moot point, jaywalking is against the law. Second, ignoring crosswalks means putting your safety into your own hands. There are dangers to crossing at the prescribed time at an intersection, but ditching the system means weighing the risks. Without looking both ways, you might get hit by a bus, a car, or a bike. If you cause a problem it may affect others, slowing down traffic and other pedestrians. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the notion that you can cross anywhere makes it feel like you should cross anywhere. When the light turns red and 2nd Avenue lay barren, your mind wants to cross. Why wait for the intersection when the street is clear now? And this puts the thinking back toward the first and second points, legality and safety. Such a loop occurs continually, making the entire journey a search for openings.
Taking it a step further, this competition to cross at the most immediate, available time, leads to drivers with a similar disposition to utilize opportunities. Drivers see pedestrians capturing a free second and are compelled to do the same. Squeezing the most out of a yellow light or purposely speeding to scare jaywalking pedestrians feels like a victory. There are nibbles of time out there, whoever gobbles up the most is the winner.
Avoiding such a game, while not the most efficient for traffic, has its own benefits. Obviously, there is peace of mind. No longer is the pedestrian asked to judge crossing prospects at all times. A simple walk across town is just that, a simple walk. Before stepping out of the house, one can figure out the route and decisions that will have to be made, leaving important tasks, like discussing politics or admiring buildings, for the walk.
But the benefits go beyond the walker, into the mind of the drivers. Knowing that confident pedestrians won’t cross mid block or even during a red light, drivers can relax. Seeing the patience on pedestrians’ faces as they stare down an unoccupied street, refusing to cross because of the cross signal, affects the mind behind the wheel. As yellow turns to red, drivers strive for a stop, hoping a bit of patience may lead them to be as joyful as the couple on the sidewalk who seem to enjoy the long wait.
It can feel like actions happen in isolation, that my decision to cross the street is mine alone and it’s effects are tied to me. But what we do happens in an environment full of other people, places, and things. And with so much to discuss, observe, and enjoy, who has time to think about crossing the street?