Thursday, October 22, 2009

Why We Jaywalk

Last week, The Boston Globe ran an article about the prevalence of jaywalking in town and the increasing number of pedestrian injuries. Today, I jaywalked all over Back Bay and asked myself why I do this. I'm basically law-abiding. I never litter, loiter, vandalize, or commit arson. I buckle up, pay my taxes on time, and follow the historic commission's guidelines. I don't even let my husband double-park. If I had a bike, you can bet I'd obey traffic signs.

So why do I jaywalk, along with so many of my fellow pedestrians?

I do it because I have a brain. It makes more sense to jaywalk in this city than not to, because our traffic systems have failed to prove to us that it's sensible to stand on the curb and wait. It might be safer, but it feels stupid. And we'd much rather be smart, take a calculated risk, and get where we're going sooner.

I'm the kind of jaywalker who will cross a street against the traffic signal because there isn't a car in sight. I'm also the jaywalker who has decided she's wasted enough collective hours, weeks, and months of her life standing at a "Don't Walk" signal despite the fact that no cars are moving in front of me because they also have a long red light. As a group, we pedestrians have decided we're too busy for that. My neighbors are as savvy as I am: We turn around, peer up at the traffic light on our corner, note that opposing traffic still has a green light, and then cross before their light turns red, or even yellow.

We do this because the synchronization of most of the traffic lights and walk signs in Boston is a mess. And we do it because, no matter what we do, chances are we're going to be hit eventually by a lawless bicyclist, not a car — and if not on the street, on the sidewalk. We feel we have nothing to lose.

I'm not the arrogant jaywalker who steps into moving traffic expecting drivers to slam on their brakes or swerve. I will do that in Cairo because it is the only way to cross streets in a chaotic city with almost no traffic lights or stop signs. It's expected; you simply make eye contact with approaching drivers, keep a steady pace, and let the drivers swerve around you, honking, as they're taught to. It's the only way to get around. It's also one of the most exhilarating, terrifying things I've ever done. But I don't do it here because I want to live. Visiting Cairo can actually make one fond of traffic signals.

I considered whether I jaywalk because I have some of that proud old Boston revolutionary spirit in my blood, that legendary, swashbuckling independence that threw crates of English Breakfast into the harbor, making salty iced tea, which never caught on. I wish that were true of me, but it's not. I'm from Pennsylvania. Instead I have been infected with that other proud old Boston spirit: impatience. We all hate to wait. Just ask anyone waiting for an E train if you disagree.

I jaywalk because, sometimes, if I actually wait for the "Walk" signal, I won't have enough time to cross the street before the light changes.

I've noticed that I don't jaywalk in Manhattan. It's not because the streets are busier, bigger, or scarier. There are neighborhoods in Manhattan that have streets and traffic similar to Back Bay. I don't have to jaywalk because I never feel stupid waiting for the light to change. In NYC, traffic lights and pedestrian signals are synchronized and the rhythm is fast, geared for the impatient driver and pedestrian. You never feel like you are wasting your time at a Manhattan intersection; you feel like you are saving your own life.

And that's a good feeling. It gives you self-confidence, and it also gives you the secure, pleasant feeling that your town isn't run by a bunch of nimrods who can't figure out how to handle traffic. You feel like your city officials respect your life and your time. That much city-fostered self-esteem could probably take a town all the way to the World Series...

But I digress. Boston's pedestrians are generally not arrogant, stupid, fiercely independent, or daredevils. We're simply smarter than the traffic signals.

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