Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Taking Jaywalking Lightly

Twice in as many days, I walked through downtown at lunchtime, dodging cars in the crosswalk, admiring mighty pedicabbers, doing the not-quite-making-eye-contact thing with oncoming pedestrians about who's going to swerve right and who's going to swerve left. Downtown Austin during South By Southwest is kind of like a miniature Times Square, only without quite so many weatherbeaten costumed characters of uncertain foreign extraction.

Then again, I've pretty much stayed away from the Convention Center.

It's fun to see your home city as a foreign place, though. Yesterday and today I approached two different crosswalks which already had groups of people waiting at them. When the light turned green, we didn't get a WALK signal. The first time, I just pushed the button and waited gamely with a European family through a second cycle of the light. Today, though, I darted around the startled-looking Asian couple waiting at the crosswalk and ran across the street with the green light. They waited. The red hand told them to wait.

And though the immediate impulse - stressed out from walking through what's normally a relatively sleepy downtown area, temporarily teeming with Out-of-Towners - is to turn up one's nose and relish one's superiority in knowing how things work, actually it's rather humbling. They didn't push the pedestrian button because they come from a place where pedestrians aren't scum. Why should you have to prove you exist by pushing a button? Doesn't downtown Austin have enough pedestrian activity, even without a major festival in town, to justify letting drivers wait 30 seconds longer for a green light on the off chance that someone needs to cross? You should always get a WALK signal, dammit. You shouldn't have to push a button.

I would argue that the "no push, don't walk" logic is dangerous, anyway. You don't always know if the reason you aren't getting a WALK signal is because the button didn't get pushed in time (in which case the law-abiding citizen stands there waiting through a green light for no reason like an idiot) or because there's a traffic pattern you aren't immediately aware of, such as a currently unoccupied lane of traffic that has a green arrow through the crosswalk, and you're about to step into the right-of-way of someone who hasn't approached the intersection just yet. DON'T WALK, in other words, might not necessarily mean DON'T WALK. Or it might. Or it might mean the button's out of order, because that happens too. You can't really be sure.

And don't even get me started on sensor-activated traffic lights that don't detect cyclists.

Tomorrow I'm going to rent an Elmo costume from Lucy in Disguise and see if I can get credulous tourists to pay me to take a picture with them.

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