Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Streets Were Made For Cars, My Son (Lessons in Crossing the Street)

Dateline: 10:08 am October 30, 2012 Filed under:

“Before you cross the street, take my hand.’ John Lennon, Beautiful Boy.

As much as I like the music of the Beatles, unfortunately the advice given by this John Lennon solo lyric is only somewhat helpful, my son. Now that you are riding your own bike with me, Ellis, you need to know that you won’t likely win your first encounter with a car, and it could well be your last. So taking my hand may not be enough. You need to look every which way before you even step off the curb. This is good life advice, no matter your age, but is especially relevant given some recent episodes on our journeys around the neighborhood.

Why just this morning, my lad, as we rode our bikes and approached Hiawatha Avenue along 38th Street, I had to shout out to you to stop short of the crosswalk as a van came careening around the corner. Sure, he stopped short of the crosswalk and politely waved us across. In fact, my boy, he did nothing wrong; he was simply accelerating per what the physics of the intersection would allow. He had to turn from eastbound 38th Street to southbound Hiawatha Avenue, and with that nice wide rounded curb, he could do so at 15 miles per hour. It’s not his fault – he was probably just driving to work. But our stepping off point into the crosswalk wasn’t in his peripheral vision until his van had worked up a pretty good head of steam. The intersection would be safer if it were better-designed for pedestrians, but regardless, always check back over your shoulder to make sure no vehicles are coming. In fact, you must look every which way and anticipate all possible angles of attack.

Just yesterday I was coming back across Hiawatha from the east on 38th Street, this time with your little brother in the bike trailer. (Why I was on the sidewalk and not in the street is a good question. Would you be? Despite how crazy 38th Street is, perhaps being on the street in the traffic flow is safer than the sidewalk and scary crosswalk.) At any rate, as I approached the ramp where the crosswalk crosses the right turn lane from northbound Hiawatha to eastbound 38th Street, a car raced around that nice wide curve right in front of us, clearly not seeing our bike approaching the crosswalk. So, kiddo, you must understand it isn’t enough to know you have the right-of-way to cross to that pedestrian island. You must verify that the car is stopping for you to cross its path, an it is best to wait until they’ve slowed and you see the whites of their eyes – hard to make eye contact at 20 MPH – so you trust they’ll stop. If the angle of that right turn was a bit sharper and the lane reconfigured, not only would cars be more likely to see you, they’d also have to slow down more in order to turn. There is no perfect answer, so either way, be careful, buddy.

And remember those two cars that came whipping across our crosswalk this morning as we entered it crossing Hiawatha at 42nd Street? They were turning left from eastbound 42nd Street to northbound Hiawatha. Yes, we had a Walk signal, and yes, that was their fault, since state law requires vehicles to stop for pedestrians in the crosswalk in that situation. But it doesn’t do you much good to point the finger when you can’t lift it in the first place. This is a tricky one, sonny boy – even though cars should yield to you, today proved that they don’t always do so. If you think about it, if you wait for the intersection to be free of cars and potential danger you may never get across that street, so look in every direction and assume drivers cannot see you until you have proof they do.

When crossing the street, it is you against the world, my child. But there is hope and sanity in the world. Why just this morning, making our final hairy road crossing across 42nd Street at 32nd, a car driving eastbound actually stopped so we could proceed across the crosswalk. Again, that all-important eye contact followed by a hand wave confirmed they were indeed letting us go and not slowing down because they dropped their phone while texting. And yes, as I said, it is state law to stop for a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Since we were on bikes, there is some gray area there, but I think someone is on our side out there, someone who understands not just the law but the reasoning for the law, and I suspect they were happy to slow down upon seeing a 6-year old biking to school with his dad. The problem is, not everyone follows, cares about is even aware of that law, or much less is going to notice you, so watch your back, Jack.

The world is a dangerous place and trouble can come from all directions, little man. I’d like to think it is a privilege for cars to drive through streets and intersections in our neighborhood. I’d also like to think it is a right for you to be able to bike to school without getting hit by a car at one of our infamous crosswalks. But life is unfair. You may statistically be less safe riding in our car with me, and you still may ask why we don’t just drive. Well, son, this is a city. It is our city. We ought to be able to walk or bike safely anywhere in our city. I’d like to think streets were designed with six-year olds in mind, but that isn’t the case. Since it is my duty as a dad to teach you caution, well, be careful crossing the street.

That reminds me of another John Lennon line…”you say you want a revolution…don’t you know that you can count me…in.”

1 Comment »

  1. Hey Sam,
    You got me with the opening line from John Lennon–I sing that song to my twins every night at bedtime. I’m in Boston for the cancelled NH&RA conference, and jeez the rounded corners in the downtown are the same hazard here as they are in Minneapolis. Just yesterday I had to jump up on the curve out of the crosswalk to avoid a speeding car, and was foolish enough to enter a mid-street crosswalk, one that people are required by law to stop at, but nobody offered me that courtesy–I had to run or get smooshed. Let’s set up a chant: “We Want Woonerfs! We Want Woonerfs!” 🙂

    Comment by Sean Armstrong — October 31, 2012 @ 8:39 am

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