Pedestrian Crossings

One of the downsides of democracy is that it elevates everyman to a position of equality without preserving the principle of civility. It gave a new nation a Bill of Rights without a corresponding Bill of Responsibilities.
       DO YOU REMEMBER when people used to get from place to place by walking and be what used to be called pedestrians, to distinguish them from equestrians, who went by horse? Well some still do, and I am one of them. This is not just another case of retro fever, nostalgia for the good old days, real or imagined, but a very contemporary activity known technically as canine pedestrianism, or dogwalking.

       At the end of my city street is a major urban highway, York Road, where those who plan highways thoughtfully established a pedestrian crossing, clearly marked by signs and stripes on the pavement. The law says that when pedestrians wish to cross, all they have to do is step onto the crossing, and the stream of traffic will come to a halt to enable them to do so. So my dog and I, believing automobile drivers to be law-abiding citizens, stand patiently on the edge of this pedestrian crossing twice every day, going and coming, waiting for the traffic to stop and let us cross.

       Our patience is, as they say, like waiting for Hell to freeze over. Not only does the traffic never stop for us, unless it is gridlocked and cannot move anyway, but drivers will often hurl curses at us if we are slow to get out of their way, after making it two thirds of the way across at the risk of our lives. Moreover, the crossing is quite often blocked by parked cars and trucks, stopping on the crossing while picking up a pizza from the local emporium. I once saw a police car blocking the crossing while its crew picked up pizza.

       It’s abundantly clear that pedestrian crossings get no respect, that pedestrians themselves get no respect; they are like stray dogs in some Latin American countries that are hunted down by drivers as a way of keeping down the stray population. It would be interesting to learn how many drivers have been cited for ignoring pedestrian crossings, compared with those cited for ignoring red lights.

       A recent television commercial peddling the latest SUV featured the theme “Get out of my way!”—which seems to express a common enough emotion, subliminal road rage or whatever. It is, after all, one of the main reasons for buying Sport Utility Vehicles in the first place—not just to be safer in bad weather, but to be the biggest hulk on the highway and look down on lesser drivers: the intimidation factor.

       In a country where the prevailing sports ethic is “Winning isn’t everything—it’s the only thing,” “Get out of my way” is an attitude to be expected. It’s the opposite of civility, the respect for others, and especially for those poorer, weaker, and less powerful than ourselves, such as the disabled or pedestrians deprived of steel casings with hundreds of horsepower. Our forebearers called it “noblesse oblige,” the responsibility of the powerful to aid and respect those beneath them, like the chivalrous knights in the court of King Arthur, whose Round Table symbolized their dedication to the ideal of equality among peers and whose model of conduct survived a thousand years.

       One of the downsides of democracy is that it elevates everyman to a position of equality without preserving the principle of civility. It gave a new nation a Bill of Rights without a corresponding Bill of Responsibilities. And although moms down through the ages have always taught their young to be kind and courteous, the male ethic so dominant in America is itself dedicated to domination, to cutthroat competition, winner-take-all, and the “get out of my way” attitude. That is why they say SUVs are from Mars, minivans are from Venus. Which is not to say, of course, that minivans stop for pedestrians at crossings while SUVs do not. The act of getting into that skin of steel with a hundred-plus horsepower heart transforms men and women alike into something close to subhuman monsters, creatures that no longer say “please” and “thank you” and observe the common courtesies of daily life.

       I was raised in a country (England) that made a big thing of pedestrian crossings and marked them with illuminated orange balls on posts called “Bellisha Beacons,” after the Minister of Transportation who introduced them. Later pedestrian crossings incorporated buttons to press and bells that rang, which effectively brought traffic to a stop.

       Today’s British drivers are quite as aggressive as those in America (though neither is as demonic as the French), but they do observe these crossing signals, and pedestrians are conditioned to wait for them. There also seem to be a lot more pedestrians in England, probably because the roads are so much more congested and pedestrianism is the only alternative. But at root the difference is in the ethic of civility ingrained in the citizenry—not personal civility, which is often friendly enough, but driving civility, which is something else again.

       If you really want to enjoy the driving experience, try for awhile behaving like a courteous driver and notice the surprise and gratitude other drivers express. When another driver signals and wants to cut in ahead, back off and give him or her a cheery wave. Ditto drivers waiting to join the traffic stream from side roads. The reaction is usually gratifying: a cheery wave in return. The golden rule is, “Do as you would be done by,” and it works. By contrast, an angry insistence on dominance, denying anyone else the right to cut in, as if driving were a life-or-death struggle for survival, achieves little except heartburn. All the frantic lane-changing and cutting in probably saves the aggressive driver only a minute or two on the entire trip, and a little courtesy shown to others costs even less time.

        Since when driving I have to turn across the pedestrian crossing I was describing in order to enter my street, I’m always careful to stop for any pedestrians who may be waiting to cross. But even when I stop for them, few actually dare to cross. They have been so intimidated by other drivers that the only time they feel safe to cross is when there are no cars in sight to left or right—which means that the crossing designation is actually quite useless.

       A few hundred years from this crossing is another with a stop light, situated a good way from where most pedestrians need it. But it takes so long for the light to change that most pedestrians press the button and then cross wherever the traffic permits. As a result, when the light does change and the traffic stops, there’s no one left to cross. This annoys drivers who think the crossing is a waste of everyone’s time, which it is. But if traffic crossings worked immediately, as they seem to in the U.K., they would be more effective, and the habit of stopping for pedestrians would be reinforced.

       Which might be a small contribution to civility.

       P.S. My dog agrees.


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This story was published on August 1, 2001.