Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Editorials: Where I rant to the wall about politics. And sometimes the wall rants back.

The Invisible Commuter

Jerry Stratton, June 7, 2008

We’re discussing lots of expensive and draconian ways to keep people from driving, since $5.00 gasoline apparently won’t do it. But our real problem is that we just don’t want people not to drive. While driving into work a few days ago, I noticed a fairly common sign on the sidewalk that reminded me that I have some things I want to say about how we treat pedestrians—by pretty much never thinking about them. With our increasingly dysfunctional dependence on oil since at least the seventies, you would think we’d want to encourage pedesrian traffic and maybe bicycle traffic where it makes sense.

But non-motorized traffic is so far off of our radar that city planners rarely take it into account. Sometimes it’s big things, but often it’s little things like not being able to tell what street you’re walking beside when it’s a one-way street and you’re going the other direction. The street signs are set up assuming you’re driving on the street, not walking on the sidewalk.

When I first moved here, I used to commute by bicycle for the night shift, from Golden Hill to Linda Vista, and I’d take one of the main drags (University) through several communities. One morning I was coming home and there was a street fair or parade or something and the police were diverting traffic onto a detour.

The detour led directly onto a highway, specifically marked “no non-motorized traffic”. The traffic cop either didn’t realize that their directions hadn’t considered cyclists, or they decided it wasn’t worth rethinking their directions. Fortunately there was another entrance ramp I could walk back up once I realized what he’d done.

No accounting for pedestrians

Pedestrians have it even worse. There’s a section of my current community (Hillcrest) that has one block of businesses not directly accessible from the northern residential areas. If I want to go to that block, the east side of the block has no crosswalk on the west side of the intersection; the west side of the block has no crosswalk on the east side of the intersection. A silly little thing, but it means that when I’m going out I tend to not see that block; I go east for shopping, west for food.

In so many places in San Diego, there are sidewalks on only one side of the street, and they’re often wide streets with lots of traffic. That in itself makes walking to places difficult, but city planners take so little account of pedestrian traffic that they don’t even think about the implications of not having a sidewalk on the other side. The construction sign that triggered this article said “sidewalk closed, use other side” when there was no sidewalk on the other side, just a vehicle lane and a fence to keep you from climbing onto the highway.

Another of these roads is one of about two bicycle-usable (and the only pedestrian-usable) entrances to Mission Valley from the city side. There are lots of highway entrances that will get you to Mission Valley from the south side of the valley, but very few surface streets. This one is a thin, two-lane road. When I first moved here it was one of those nice hidden secrets for people who like to save gas, bike, or walk to the mall. Of course, it only has a sidewalk on one side, and even better, the sidewalk switches sides towards the top of the hill, requiring pedestrians to cross a crosswalk with no visibility on the downside due to an s-curve, and little visibility on the upside due to the angle of descent. Since moving here that road has had a third lane, a parking lane, added, to the extent that it’s so thin motor traffic coming up the hill often drives partially in the oncoming traffic lane, making it more dangerous for bicyclists as well as pedestrians.

I’m familiar with that street because it’s nearby; the other one is a couple of miles away and has gone through the same kind of redesign, but it’s even worse. It has higher traffic, is extremely thin, has high concrete walls around it, and it twists all the way down the hill.

Another road I use to get to work is a much better one for motor traffic but it has no notion of pedestrian traffic despite the residential buildings all down the street. It has two lanes of traffic in both directions (four lanes total, plus a middle lane for left turns) with a posted limit of 45 and an actual speed of 55 to 60. There’s a one mile stretch of the road with no intersection. There’s a golf course or park of some sort on much of the south side with no roads to put an intersection to. One day while biking to work, I noticed that the sidewalk had a “crosswalk closed, use other side” sign… halfway down that stretch of road, where any pedestrian would have had to go half a mile out of their way to get to the other side without jaywalking into high speed traffic.

Construction is often a major problem for pedestrians and cyclists, not because there’s construction in those paths, but because sidewalks and the right side of the road are not considered important enough to keep clear. Temporary traffic signs will completely block bicycle lanes and sidewalks—letting motorists know that they need to go somewhere else, and forcing pedestrians to go somewhere else even though they otherwise wouldn’t have had to. These are especially problematic for people in wheelchairs, for whom the tricky workarounds that other pedestrians use aren’t possible.

Traffic lights are another example of not thinking about pedestrians. Traffic lights have all sorts of programming to make them adjust automatically for motorized traffic. They’ll lengthen their green time if there’s a lot of traffic going through, for example. But they won’t even adjust themselves on a green for pedestrians when pedestrians manually let the traffic lights know they’re waiting. If the walk-light started red, it will stay red, even if the traffic light just turned green.

Everyone drives daily

It never occurs to us that people don’t drive their cars. Many places, including San Diego, even have laws requiring most renters to drive their cars at least every three days. If they don’t, they can get a ticket for being in the same residential parking spot for too long. The purpose is to keep people from parking cars that don’t run; the effect is to discourage not driving to work or to nearby shops. Just last night I drove my car to the grocery store because of this. I prefer to walk, but since city law requires me to drive at least an eighth of a mile every three days I decided I’d better drive it.

An eighth of a mile every three days; that‘s the worst kind of driving for both gas usage and pollution. But because we don’t take into account the possibility that people might not drive daily, we encourage that kind of driving.

The lack of accounting for people who don’t drive their cars daily follows through to construction events as well. Back when I worked the night shift, I saw an apartment-mate’s car get ticketed when “no parking 7 AM to 5 PM” signs were put along the street after midnight the night before! The signs hadn’t been there when I left for work at 11:30 PM the previous night, and I’m pretty sure they weren’t there when I came back at 8 AM. But they were there when I awoke at 3 PM—along with a ticket on his car. It’s no surprise that everyone drives their cars daily instead of bussing or carpooling; the whole system assumes that everyone does.

If we stopped getting in people’s way when they chose to walk or otherwise not drive, people might choose to not drive more often.

  1. <- Playing with fire
  2. Commute to the Internet ->