Guest post by Josh Spokes.
US culture is actively hostile to pedestrians and cyclists. We have to change the cultural attitudes about cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. It’s very hard to do this because the culture of automobile supremacy is baked into the smallest parts of our daily life and the decisions our public works departments make. Here’s a “small” example of this from my life.
I work in a building next to a four-way, traffic-signaled intersection. It’s a very busy crossing. There are four lanes of traffic on one road, and two on the intersecting road. At this intersection are a number of delis, restaurants, and small retail stores.
I buy my lunch most days from the deli across the road. To get there I have to push a pedestrian crossing signal. The cycle makes walkers wait so long that yesterday, I just gave up:
- Press walk signal
- Watch the entire traffic cycle repeat at least five times. This means that, starting at the 12 0’clock position, each direction of cars was given its own turn five times. The “hand of the clock” traveled all the way around to 12 o’clock five times, never stopping to let pedestrians cross.
- After five minutes (yes, I’m not exaggerating) I turned around and walked back to my office. I had to get in my CAR to travel through the intersection. This is the distance of one block.
I have watched old people, families, and joggers go through this. Once the signal to walk turns on, it gives you 15 seconds to cross a very wide street. Children and the elderly cannot do it. I have to hustle to make it.
Meanwhile, cars take right turns on red and nearly strike pedestrians every day. More and more, cars are honking at pedestrians and each other, enraged that people are allowed to make them have to stop so they have a chance to walk.
I called the city public works dept. The employee was helpful, but clearly in a bind. After explaining to me how the lights are cycled and insisting that they don’t “chip” pedestrians (meaning, the lights don’t treat the pedestrian part of the cycle as dispensable if something goes wrong. Actually, yes, they do. I watch it happen.), he said this.
I’m so glad you called and told me this. You’re the first one I can remember that’s pro-pedestrian this month. For every 10 calls, nine of them are angry drivers accusing us of screwing motorists over. They complain about the ‘long time’ the light gives pedestrians [this is objectively untrue; it’s 15 seconds], and they complain that bicycles are allowed to use the road.
I live in Vermont. We are a state that claims to be environmentally vigilant, that claims to value walkable and bikeable city living. But look at the majority of citizens who call public works. Nearly all of them are furious motorists. Every single navigable space around here is constructed to favor automobiles with the most extraordinary generosity, and damn the safety cost to pedestrians. Yet motorists are angry about us, and about bicyclists, enough to call public works to complain about pedestrians being allowed to cross the road.
I said this was a small example. Don’t be misled. You can be certain the very same calculations are happening in your city’s public works department. In states even more hostile to walking and biking it is certainly worse. The staffer who helped me wanted to help. He wants to make it easier for non-drivers. But he is cornered by ignorant, fulminating automobile drivers.
Do you think his bosses will give him a good review if his decisions are sound and balanced, but they happen to piss off motorists who want to complain? (Hint: no.)
Few of us talk about this much outside those who work in transportation policy. This has to change.
The automobile is a 2-ton, rolling demonstration of typical US entitlement. It’s the most visible and dangerous expression of macho domination of public resources. Its worship encourages aggression from drivers when they are asked to share public resources. The car has made otherwise good people insane.