Monday, March 7, 2011

Driving with Crazy Hands

On my ride in to work this morning I was given a crazy wave. If you bike or walk anywhere you know this particular gesture.

I approached an intersection near the University of Missouri campus at the same time as two cars. One approached from the cross-street, the other from the opposite direction. We all stopped. Yes, as a bicyclist I stop at intersections, too.

After a few extra seconds of everyone being polite and waiting the cross-street driver turned right. The driver who remained wanted to turn left. I wanted to continue straight. Someone must go and the other must wait. Clearly a generous man, the driver waited for me to advance on my bike. Also being a man with limits to his patience the driver needed to gesture to me that he wanted me to make my move first. To communicate that wish to me, he waved. He waved frantically. He gave not a casual wave as if to say "You go ahead, my fellow traveler" rather he offered a jerk of his hand. Then he did it some more. Raised from the steering wheel, his hand flapped at me with quick stabbing motions. Hurry up and go already! So I did. I gave him a nod of thanks as I passed and I could only see enough of him to know that he was a he.

When most commuters make most trips by personal automobile the quality of human interactions in the public realm declines. As walkers and bicyclists we are out in the world. We see the sky and feel the wind and we see everyone else at a low miles-per-hour pace. I may be bundled up and in a hurry, but I still can make eye contact with my fellow commuters, strollers and loose dogs. Sealed up in our Ford Ranger I would not be able to make eye contact as easily with others on the road no matter their travel mode. As a driver if I absolutely have to communicate something to another person outside of my sphere-on-wheels I will, of course, wave frantically. Hurry up and go already! I could roll down my window and nod possibly making eye contact with another commuter, but that might cause me to spill my Starbucks, which I would keep safely tucked between my thighs taking drags off the plastic lid at every red light. But I digress.

Livable streets encourage walking and bicycling. A network of city streets featuring bicycle lanes, sidewalks and crosswalks aren’t intended to make it hard to drive places. Rather a livable street should make it easy to make eye contact with other commuters. And that keeps things safe for everyone.

I recently heard a State official here in Missouri explain that busses remain the safest way to move students to and from school. (Less cars = less road accidents. That makes sense.) And when the kids exit their bus and prepare to cross their street, they have been schooled by the bus driver and their teachers to be 100% sure they make eye contact with the oncoming driver. Only once eye contact is established can the student know for sure that the driver saw her. Now she can safely begin to cross the street on the way to her home. The driver could also acknowledge that he saw the student preparing to cross to her house by flapping at her with one of those crazy hands.

Livable streets must be born at the local level. For example, parents – concerned about their students safety – can request to the school principal and superintendant that sidewalks be installed near school. Senior citizens who want to walk to a nearby grocery store can ask their City Councilwoman to introduce a livable streets ordinance to the council for consideration. Such a policy leads to more infrastructure that encourages active transportation for all. A local livable streets policy is a statement of values in the city code that says we will consider the needs of all residents when building new streets and reconstructing existing roadways. All residents means all residents. Not just those who operate a personal vehicle. Over time, a local livable streets policy can guide city and state staff to creates street designs that meet the needs of users of local streets regardless of age or ability.

See you in the streets, Tre

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