When I heard NYC’s Transportation Commissioner’s presentation in which she described the perspective of looking at the city’s streets as assets, it made so much sense. With a changed perception, the use of temporary materials, and experimentation, many of the city’s streets have been dynamically transformed recently into multi-use, population-friendly zones. Now this concept is being emulated in urban areas across the country and the globe.
Mostly we think of streets as thoroughfares where motorized vehicles have the right of way. As an avid cyclist, occasional jogger, and general non-car user of the streets, the perspective change is a boon. The mentality of cars owning the road is boring. No one owns the roads or the streets. Of course we use them primarily for vehicular commerce and travel, but they can be so much more than that.
My first vivid cars-owning-the-road experience was in high school as I was riding my bicycle down route 501 towards Lancaster, PA. Since there was no shoulder to speak of, I road just inside the white line at the road’s edge. I could hear a car slowing down behind me, and as it passed someone leaned out of the passenger window, punched me in the back, yelled something like get off the road, then sped off. Maybe it was done for kicks. The temporary sting left by the punch impressed upon me how streets are so car dominated.
Another vivid street impression was visiting Shanghai in the late 80s. Then it was a bicycle dominated city, hundreds of thousands of them. To move around by car was slow going, not because of other cars, but because it was like swimming through a thick school of fish, the bicycles making way for the slowly moving vehicles. Today it’s completely reversed. There are still bicycles in Shanghai, but cars dominate.
At some point in modern human history we went from an outdoors people to indoors– home to car to another indoor place, sheltered in between. California may be an exception. Some urban areas are an exception. An early recollection of being in San Diego years ago was that merely stepping into a crosswalk brought cars to a stop, every driver aware that pedestrians have the right of way. Compare that to Medellin, Colombia, where there are many large painted crosswalks but using them requires that you are quick on your feet as very few drivers give peds the right of way.
When the #Citibike bike share program started earlier this year in NYC, many people in or around the new bike docking stations were crazy outraged that bike parking invaded a few car parking spaces. Imagine, public streets meant for anything else but private motor vehicles! What they didn’t recognize is that streets are public spaces, for the benefit of everyone, not reserved solely for the right of packing motor vehicles.
Many cities were simply not built for anything but cars. Take Dubai in the UAE, which is nothing but sprawl. It’s hot most of the year but even when it isn’t, most people don’t go out for a stroll, or a bike ride. It’s car to building and building to car. The roads were meant for nothing else but cars. You need a car there not only for mobility, but for defense.
As in any urban walking-(somewhat)friendly city where you are a driver until you are a pedestrian, there are good peds and bad peds. Good peds consider the flow of traffic and have a share-the-road mentality. Bad peds think only about their own right-of-way. In a cherry scenario, peds would always cross at crosswalks and only when they have the blinking “go” signal. In real life, jay-walking and crossing as long as you are not interrupting the flow of vehicles is a necessity.
What the Transportation Commissioner didn’t mentioned in her presentation was how NYC has been rolling out timers at signaled intersections. In addition to giving peds a heads-up with the countdown to zero, the result converts some bad peds to good peds — a big win for all.
Of course the shared mentality must apply to everyone. Last year Hollywood came out with the movie Premium Rush, centered on bike messengers in NYC. The hollow movie was less about cycling skills and more about the cyclist’s disregard for the concept of sharing. Having been run over by a bike messenger while in a crosswalk with the right-a-way, the large egg left on my head showed me first-hand the cyclist’s lack of spine as he got up and rushed off. It was a premium experience. He was the most important thing in his world at the expense of anyone who was in his way.
A few years ago I was rollerblading along the Hudson River shared path when a bicyclist yelled at me for taking up too much space. What he didn’t say, but implied by what he said was, “I’m not a very good bicyclist and can’t maneuver very well,” and “I’m not very good at sharing. This is my space.”
Another loco experience caught me as I was crossing NYC’s Westside Highway early one Sunday morning on my bicycle. If you cross this 3-lane-each-way highway anywhere from midtown to Battery Park, you’ve got to cross at a signaled crosswalk. As I was about to enter the crosswalk on my bike, a middle age ped purposely put himself in front of me, blocking me. My first reaction was that it was a joke, but I could see from his determined face it wasn’t. I maneuvered to the other side of the crosswalk and he quickly shuffled sideways to continue to block me. Through his mean face he barked “this is a crosswalk, not a bicycle crossing.” The crosswalk was wide enough that I could have ridden over with six other cyclists and 14 peds. As it was there was no one around. With the goal of conflict avoidance, without saying a word, I did an about face and made it look like I was retreating, then did a tight 360 loop back onto the crosswalk and made it across as the final seconds ticked off the timer.
Bottom line: we all have the right-of-way to our public streets, no matter where they are. There are good drivers and bad, good cyclists and bad, same for peds, skateboarders, skaters, and scooter riders. What separates good from bad is a deficiency is our brain’s share quotient — which is the result of dividing time spent in shared spaces by breath of perception, yielding some degree of clue and sensitivity. The good news is most people have a high share quotient, with abundant clue and a healthy perspective. Still, we can increase that quotient by spreading the good word. Streets are for everyone. So go out there and share a street.