There is a long overdue move afoot in Central Florida to promote walkability and enforce pedestrian safety, particularly at intersections and crosswalks. The goal is to transform the Orlando metro area from a "killing field" for pedestrians, evidenced by successive years at or near the top (along with other Florida metros) of places ranked the worst for pedestrian and bicyclist safety. As trends continue toward creating more walkable places and complete streets for economic development and livability, and people - particularly older and younger folks - are driving less and seeking places to live and work that are more accessible by means other than driving a car - this is an incredibly important initiative. We've long been far too complacent in marginalizing those who walk, bicycle or take transit in favor of speed and convenience for autos and trucks. While community design plays a big role in pedestrian safety, culture can play an even bigger role in whether people comply with laws protecting pedestrians and practice basic courtesy and common sense. Motorists need to look for pedestrians and expect them to be present on any surface street. Elected officials and public agency staff need to make pedestrian accessibility and safety a priority. Law enforcement needs to take violations seriously and take part in both education and enforcing laws. The Florida Department of Transportation is stepping up to do its part.
A Cultural Blind Spot
But it's the culture that is the most pernicious challenge. We're a nation of mostly ignorant pedestrians and aggressive auto drivers, which is a bad combination.
Many walkers cross a street wherever convenient, even if they are mid-block just a few feet from a signal crosswalk. Too busy to wait with the 64 oz soft drink from the Circle K store? Too many of us stare into our phones as we step from the curb. Many motorists, for their part, accelerate through yellow lights, using only the narrowest field of vision centered on the tail-lights of the vehicle in front of them.
It has been said that driving is a fundamentally moral endeavor. People expect others to follow the rules of the road; to yield the right-of-way, move to the right when driving slower, and to signal their intentions. Why should non-motorized traffic be different? Yet, for whatever reason, I am often castigated by some co-workers and colleagues as being a sheep when I go a few feet out of direction to use crosswalks or wait at the intersection for the pedestrian signal. It's somehow lame to wait at the intersection. The same is also true of many urban cyclists who ignore traffic signals, ride willy-nilly on sidewalks, drive through parking lots to cut the corner, etc. Is it because they are too busy or just too cool for school?
Then we have the timid pedestrians, who are too fearful that cars will not stop to assert their proper right to enter a crosswalk with the signal, even on slow speed, pedestrian-oriented streets, so they wait until the coast is completely clear or a large gap occurs in traffic. This creates confusion and risk, and conditions motorists into believing they do not need to yield to pedestrians.
Your Inalienable Pedestrian Rights
I think the remedy is to re-assert the primacy of pedestrian right-of-way, and to do so in keeping with the laws and moral rules of the road. I take the initiative to be an assertive pedestrian and cyclist who boldly steps into the crosswalk when walking - first making eye contact and using hand signals when necessary to make my intentions clear - and controlling the traffic lane when bicycling to my destination. When walking or bicycling, it's important to model the rules of good behavior because so many people ignore the rules, confuse the situation for everyone, and often put themselves at risk. Yes, I want to do what is legal, but I'm no sheep. Walkers have their rights and their responsibilities.
I'll take the ribbing and roll with it, but it underscores a fundamental issue with our culture and peer pressure that subtly undermines efforts to make our streets safer for all users.
It's good to question authority and, when necessary, flout the rules of authority when you believe the rules are arbitrary, punitive or petty. It's a grand tradition of Americans to challenge the authority of those who would govern our behavior and rights as free citizens. But that doesn't apply to traffic laws and our rights and duties as users of the transportation network. Whether we drive, take tranist, walk or bicycle, thee system functions best when we accept and follow the rules of the road and acknowledge the array of social mores that go along with them.