Whatever Happened to Pedestrian Rights?
According to the New York Times, European cities are becoming inimical to drivers and amicable to pedestrians, as they attempt to control pollution, decrease heat trapping emissions and improve public health.
The United States remains intensely car friendly -- and pedestrian hostile. And that says a lot about our public safety, health, future obesity epidemic and how seriously we believe in global climate change -- as well as much we value life.
Let me provide an intensely local and yet generalizable example. 24 seconds -- not 24 hours -- that's how long you've got on the traffic shot-clock to cross 6 rows of cars on the main street of my home town, Sarasota, if you wish to reach the grounds of our main regional hospital. Before and during those 24 seconds motorists desperate to zoom ahead or get to their doctor's office will cut you off through right turns, very noticeably not looking in your direction as they accelerate.
The price of failure -- periodic memorial flowers stacked underneath the traffic poles.
Welcome to the standard American pedestrian nightmare -- a nation where two thirds of adults are overweight and a third of the population is slated to become diabetic, but which can't be bothered to make walking safe -- even in front of a hospital.
How bad are things really? In 2007 Los Angeles police ticketed a "cane wielding woman" for not being able to reach the sidewalk in the allotted time.
Get Out, Stop and Touch
You're driving down a main thoroughfare. You reach a red light. You stop the car and get out, rushing to the traffic pole. You rapidly slam your thumb into the pylon's traffic button, making sure its light blinks demonstrating it works. Carefully watching to make certain no one will mow you down, you run back to your car, snap the key to the engine block, hear the pleasant purr of the engine and wait for the light to change to green before proceeding down the road.
Obviously this is a completely preposterous idea for motorists, which would make traffic flow impossible and dangerous.
So why require it from pedestrians trying to cross the street?
According to researcher Gordon Stoltzner, who came up with the above example, Florida law implies a cross walk at every intersection. By law, pedestrians rule.
In fact, pedestrians often possess less than a prayer.
On several sides of the hospital where I'm on staff stand crosswalks with tall signs warning drivers of $100+ fines if they do not allow pedestrians right of way. I tackle these crosswalks daily on my way to the Sleep Lab, allowing me to gauge their activity during the noon hour.
Perhaps one in five cars actually stop for pedestrians; some days it is one in eight. I usually do not begin my move beyond the sidewalk until a car is coming to a stop. A few magnanimously gesture me along with their hands, making it clear that they see me and unlike most of the other drivers will allow me onto to the street, and I gratefully acknowledge them. It's only when I safely arrive on the far sidewalk I realize I'm publicly thanking them for the privilege of crossing the street.
People do stop at crosswalks when they see orange jacketed crossing guards standing up for children attending school. The city I live in has an average age of 55, and like many Florida communities, many elderly people. Never have I seen a police officer hold off everyday traffic to aid an elderly person in a wheelchair or with walker to get across any avenue. In the suburbs of New York, my elderly mother sometimes makes it through one quiet line of stopped traffic only to feel the wind of cars and SUVs leaving her immobilized and vulnerable in the middle of the crosswalk.
Health and Money
People like to walk -- if it's safe. Pedestrian districts are among the most famed attractions of many great urban centers.
In Britain, the differences in survival between the poorest and highest socio-economic groups become halved when people have more greensward. People get more healthy when they have places to move around.
Americans now lead the world in average body mass index, and even ten years ago averaged a BMI of about 28. Many researchers don't think we will get that number down unless people engage in one of the simplest physical activity -- walking.
Obesity does not just cost health care dollars. More weight means more weight to carry around. Every pound added to the American population probably adds a couple of billion dollars in transportation costs. Weighty people need more food, which also requires far more energy to create and transport.
About 5000 Americans are killed in road accidents each year.
Why It Matters
Pedestrian safety is a public health issue -- if people can walk more, they're healthier and in better mood.
It's a health cost issue -- if people are healthier, they'll spend less time in doctor's offices.
It's an energy issue -- pedestrians use their own power rather than fossil fuels to get around.
It's an environmental issue -- walkers pollute less than cars, and car pollution increases chronic lung disease.
It's a national security issue -- America has been involved in wars in the Middle East for the past 10 years (you don't see us intervening in the Congo, where perhaps 5 million have died.)
All these things are connected.
Counties and cities are desperate for funds. Enforcing pedestrian laws, particularly with cameras at crosswalks, could benefit crimped budgets and the public health.
Can't we make our streets safe enough to walk?
Follow Matthew Edlund, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therestdoctor