Signalized crossings are really starting to tick me off.

Back when I felt like a trespasser for crossing the street, I used to look at signalized crossings like peace offerings, little gestures from the city to pedestrians, "You are safe here." Now they seem like an infrastructural flippin' of the bird. My new walk to work illustrates this change of heart.

New Year, New Route

Last year, my walk to work was through an old gridded neighbourhood of four-way stops and roundabouts. On the route, I'd have to frogger across only two major roads where I felt like I had to apologize and say thank you to braking cars as I darted across the lanes. My mind was allowed to wander on the sidewalks. I got some good thinking in and would arrive at work feeling refreshed.

For a month now, I've been walking to that same destination from a new starting point. Now the bulk of my walk involves cutting through parking lots and dreading the intersections. There are three major roads to cross:

  1. A zippy two-lane with a beg button and a new flashy crosswalk
  2. The main north-south artery that connects downtown with the mall and big box land. Five lanes at this particular intersection.
  3. An even zippier three-lane with a beg button and a flashy crosswalk.

True to the Shared Space philosophy, these signals now make me feel less safe. The more official looking the walk sign, the less I trust my right of way.

Don't trust the signal

Where I live, people treat the flashing pedestrian crossings as optional. Almost every time you push that button, a car or two will blaze through it before the others either skid to a stop or slow down juuusst enough to make it ambiguous whether or not they are going to let you go. It gives the impression that you've almost caused a pile-up or narrowly escaped a hit-and-run.

Is this any better than just taking your chances without a crossing signal? The all-around frustration gets to me the most. Some drivers are so frustrated that they won't stop, which frustrates the drivers that are generous enough to stop, and confuses the pedestrian who then tentatively steps into the street waiting to see if all the cars will stop. As you try to make eye contact with approaching drivers to ensure they see you, the faces read "WILL YOU CROSS ALREADY!?" In this situation, everybody hates each other. It's not a healthy way to get to work.

Then there are the signalized intersections with the formal walking man signal. They look friendly enough, don't they? And then, BAM.

Walk signs give you a false sense of security, just like green lights give you a false sense of entitlement when you're behind the wheel. When I have to cross these five lanes with a walk sign, I now prep for it on the sidewalk - unplug myself from audiobook, remove hat/hood for extra peripheral vision, constantly scan for cars turning left or right into the crosswalk.

Image from Google Earth

Image from Google Earth

There is a hum of low-level stress this entire walk because I know through experience that cars are not looking for me. They turn into me all the time, stopping at the last minute or cutting in seconds after I vacate the lane. I need to be constantly vigilant in watching for them.

Yes, constant vigilance is a responsible way to walk your city. And wearing Kevlar is responsible way to intervene a shootout. But there is a toll in negotiating the low-level but persistent threat to your being. It's not the way to build a home.

You don't belong here

In those brief moments of my walk now where I can let my mind wander, it often wanders to an internal debate. Because I like crosswalks, right? I've even helped with a little guerrilla crosswalk-building where we could only dream of a flashy beg-button. We advocate for beefed up crossings and yet here I am complaining about them. Worse, here I am admitting that in my very own experience they don't actually work that well.

What went wrong? It's another reminder that we don't have straightforward solutions to the commonest of problems. The crossings fall short for a dozen reasons I can name and at least another dozen I probably couldn't. The roads are too fast, the intersections too few, the incentives too twisted, the enforcement too absent, design, design, design, etc.

I don't know that this walk to work will ever feel comfortable and enjoyable without an overhaul beyond the route or reaches of our city limits. The most insidious and pervasive reason we can't just "fix" this stuff is a feeling. It's that feeling of guilt I have for stopping three lanes of traffic wherever I cross the road-moat encompassing campus. It's the splash of filthy slush down my boots when a car hits the gas to avoid stopping at a crosswalk. It's the nervous glances in every direction while trying to navigate a shortcut through a parking lot.

It's an environment emblazoned with "You don't belong here" in every language, from the noise of rushing cars to the taste of exhaust. In this context, crosswalks are not enough. In this context, cities will never feel like natural habitat for people outside of a vehicle. And if our homes don't feel like a worthy habitat, everyone suffers. We end up treating land like an input, not a place worth sustaining and caring about.

Pedestrian, Piéton, Peatón, Person

I had a weird moment the other day when looking at a bilingual crosswalk sign. As you'll know, there's not always a translation for certain words, phrases, or feelings across languages. For example, I always have a hard time communicating the fullness of the word 'home' in French (to be fair, I have a hard time communicating almost anything in French because I'm not fluent).

Anyway, it's so satisfying when there is a simple, neat translation available. Like for pedestrian. Piéton. To me, it's a sign of shared culture and experience. But I don't know whether it's happy or sad that pedestrian translates so neatly into French and Spanish and who knows how many other languages.

There's that old cliché (myth?) that the Inuit have a much richer vocabulary to describe snow in its many forms, where we might just say powder, pellet, or slush. Well, we have a sophisticated enough relationship with the city to apply a wide vocabulary to the kind of people we encounter: pedestrians, motorists, cyclists, passengers, buskers, vendors, street patrol, etc. This is our world and we slot other kinds of people into some sort of internal hierarchy of rules and annoyance depending on our own circumstances.

But to an outsider looking in, would we not just all be people? People in cars, on bikes, in wheelchairs, in heels, on scaffolding, loitering, exercising, riding the bus.

That makes our manual for successful city-living a lot more intuitive, doesn't it? Don't wait for a signal to tell you how to interact with motorists and cyclists and pedestrians. Just always watch out for other people when using the street. Be kind to other people. Be forgiving of other people. Be generous to other people. Don't hurt other people.

And then I had to cross the street and the moment was over.