Monday, November 1, 2010

"Crossing The Street In Our Nation's Capital"

This one is basically filler. But it satisfies the “absurdity” quotient of which I am so terribly fond, so here we go. Apologies in advance for possibly wasting your time.

Even though I live in the freeway-stitched city of Los Angeles, I remain primarily a walker, rather than a driver. One reason for that preference is there is no eye test for walking. Second, when walkers have an accident – which itself is extremely rare – unlike when you’re driving, nobody dies or gets seriously mangled.

Two people collide, (or a person and a lamppost if your peripheral vision is limited; it happens), you go, “Ow!”, you fall down, maybe, you’re embarrassed. But you’re not in the hospital, and nobody’s notifying the name in your wallet designating “Who To Call.”

You’re discombobulated. But you’re alive.

My Santa Monica – essentially a suburb of Los Angeles – walking experience inevitably involves intersections. I imagine you’re familiar with how they work – “Red Light” – Stop; “Green Light” – Go. I know, it’s an infringement on personal freedom – the government micromanaging your movements – but it’s a small price to pay for not being flattened by a bus.

Here in Santa Monica, accompanying the “Green Light”, is the very helpful “Flashing Countdown”, an illuminated sign on the light standard indicating how many seconds you have to cross the street. Calibrating the time-distance ratio helps pedestrians determine whether or not to make their move.

(In Santa Monica, where we care about all people equally, the “Green Light” is also accompanied by a “Hoo-hoo” cuckoo-bird sound, alerting the sightless that, “It’s time to cross.” I don’t know they do it in other places. It could be as simple as asking a nearby pedestrian, “Is it ‘Green’ now?”, sparing the community the expense of the “Hoo-hoo.”
But somehow it gets done. You don’t read about huge numbers blind people outside of Santa Monica strolling out into traffic.)

The available crossing time is generous. If you’re there when the “Countdown” begins, you have ample opportunity to complete the cross. The only people who run are the macho types – though you don’t have to be a man – who arrive with the “Countdown” at “5 seconds” or lower and decide to make the dash, unwilling to delay their important business by thirty seconds.

It’s all good. The light turns “Green”, you’ve got the “Countdown” to help set your pace, the “Hoo-hoo” for the sightless. Life at a Santa Monica intersection is beautiful.

Cut To:

Our nation’s capital – Washington D.C, the city where the most brilliant minds available wrack their brains to find answers to our country’s thorniest problems. These are the biggest geniuses we’ve got.

And here’s what they came up with for crossing the street in their city.

I am visiting Washington, a “Plus One” at a convention attended by Dr. M. I am eager to check the place out. I exit the hotel, and I go for a walk. Inevitably arriving at an intersection. It happily turns out that

Washington D.C., too, is a participant in the “Countdown.”

The street I’m about to cross is narrow. The light turns “Green.” The “Countdown” flashes on, and begins counting down. I have forty-five seconds to cross the street.

Forty-five seconds to cross a street no wider than a neighborhood back alley. I’m thinking, in a town filled with “Special Interest” advocates, the “Slow Walkers Of America” lobby clearly carries some powerful clout.

“We need forty-five seconds.”

“For that?”

“There’s a lot of ‘Slow Walkers’ out there. We can turn an election.”

“Forty-five seconds it is! Would you like a campaign button?”

I complete the journey in sixteen seconds. I could easily have taken longer. I could have stopped in the middle, rattled off the names of the forty-four presidents in order, going back to place Millard Fillmore before Franklin Pierce instead of after, finished off with the names of the nine current Justices of the Supreme Court, the Speaker of the House and the leader of the Senate, and still have made it across with time to spare.

Well, Washington’s a Southern city. It’s a meandering pace.

I continue walking. I come to another intersection. It’s a big street, this time. I figure, “Okay, it’s a wide street. But, hey, I have forty-five seconds to cross it.”

The light turns “Green.” The “Countdown” flashes on, indicating the “Crossing Time”:

Eleven seconds.

Eleven seconds. To traverse a football field. The great Jim Brown, in his prime, would have had serious difficulty pulling that off. Full disclosure, though no News Flash: I didn’t quite make it. A few cars had to wait till I got to the curb.

I later make inquiries about this bizarro arrangement. It turns out that in Washington D.C., the “Countdown” at every intersection is individually calibrated, the allotted crossing-time determined, not according to the needs of the pedestrians, but according to car traffic.

If a lot of cars regularly travel in a certain direction, the light remains “Green” longer to accommodate the volume of traffic. The pedestrians are not a consideration.

It’s entirely about the cars.

As a result of this priority hierarchy, serious attention must be paid to the “Flashing Countdown.” Some intersections, you have time to amble. Some, you can cross normally. And sometimes, it’s “Gentlemen, start your engines!”

This was a novel experience for me. I haven’t made a study, but I imagine that where I live, there may be some minor variations in the “Countdown” allowances. But I thought that was related to the time pedestrians needed to cross the street. Narrow streets, a shorter “Countdown”; wider streets – you get extra time.

Washington D.C’s strategy, however, and maybe your town’s as well, I wouldn’t know, is totally vehicularly oriented. Apparently, if wasn’t the “Slow Walkers of America” who carried the Big Stick. It was “Drivers In A Hurry.”

Walking in Washington, I would always wear sneakers. I had to. Dress shoes would be a handicap for “the sprint.” I wondered how people with serious ambulatory difficulties dealt with this problem.

“I made a study of all the ‘wide-street, limited crossing time’ situations. And I go a different way.”

That’s great if you have options. But what if you don’t?

“What can I tell you? There are some places I haven’t been in years.”

You don’t have to be a conservative to worry about the efficiency of government. But when people in the city that enacts our laws make decisions that require you to be a Gold Medal Winner in the hundred-meter dash to successfully cross an intersection, you start worrying about its sanity as well.

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