Whatever Happened to Pedestrian Rights?
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 hope to reach the grounds of our main regional hospital. Before and during those 24 seconds motorists desperate to zoom ahead or just 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 average 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, reassuring you it remains in operation. Carefully watching to make sure 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 internal combustion engines, and wait for the light to change to green. Then you proceed down the road.
A completely preposterous idea for motorists, of course. It would make traffic flow impossible. It's entirely dangerous.
So why require it from pedestrians who are 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 sometimes possess less than a prayer. Try crossing a main thoroughfare at an intersection lacking traffic lights. Your eyes better be sweeping across 360 degrees of arc, your feet fleet, your running shoes in good repair.
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. Some 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. I tip my head, often saying thank you as I race to the other side, hoping cars in the opposing lane will not speed up. It's only when I safely arrive on the far sidewalk that I realize I'm publicly thanking the stopped driver 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 cross the street.
Health and Money
People like to walk - if it's safe. Pedestrian districts are among the most famed attractions of many great urban centers, like the Arcades in Paris.
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.
In New York City, a decidedly stressful place, the population lives 3 years longer than the national average. Many researchers think the need for walking in the city - if only to reach urban transit like subways and buses - provides a large part of this survival advantage.
Americans now lead the world in average body mass index at an overweight 28.1. 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 can add 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.
So 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 fossil fuels to get around. It's an environmental issue - walkers pollute less than cars. 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. Here personal health also can aid environmental health - and make our nation less addicted to multiply costly oil.
Counties and cities are desperate for funds. Enforcing pedestrian laws, particularly with cameras at crosswalks, could benefit crimped budgets and the public health.
Or so we can hope.