I am fortunate to live in an area of San Diego where I can walk everywhere. As a freelance writer who works alone at home, I appreciate being able to get out almost every day in the fresh air and combine walking with running errands, going to exercise class, strolling along the oceanfront, meeting friends for lunch, or even calling on a business client. If the day ever comes that I have to give up driving, I could survive without a car.
But now I’m beginning to wonder how long I can survive walking. It’s becoming scarier and crazier out there every day to be a pedestrian.
We already know it’s crazier to drive on the freeways: more people with more to do, in a hurry in their huge vehicles. An attempt to lower the national speed limit to 55 mph after the oil shortages in the ’70s lasted only 13 years, so now everyone is tailgating, even if we’re doing 75 in the slow lane. I learned the hard way to get over my flippant habit of flipping off these tailgaters when one tried to run me off the road in his big pick-up truck. It could have been worse. He could have had a shotgun.
Now this me-first impatience has spread to the surface streets. What used to be sacrosanct in California – the right-of-way of the pedestrian – has lost more asphalted ground every year. Anyone who’s been in California for awhile can remember feeling reasonably safe using a crosswalk. Cars would actually stop. Now we don’t dare put a toe out over the curb even at a green light for fear it will be ripped off, New York-style, by a car careening around the corner. Instead of looking once before stepping off the curb, I now look two or three times in all directions. I don’t assume the drivers see the little man light under the green light, or the sign, DRIVERS MUST YIELD TO PEDESTRIANS. I don’t assume, even if all cars are stopped and I am halfway through the intersection, that they will remain stopped. I have been surprised more than once by cars grazing my behind or making me run so fast my hat falls off. I have seen cars bear down on women with children and old people with walkers.
What is it that is so important, I wonder, that they can’t wait an extra minute? Why have they forced us to become such defensive walkers, robbed us of our pleasant, strolling right-of way?
One embarrassing morning, I lost it completely in the middle of the street when a black Jaguar snarled toward me, leaping cat hood ornament aimed right at my midsection. I started shrieking and cursing. Under one arm, I had my yoga mat, but with my free one I gestured and gave the finger like a madwoman. People were cringing around me. I felt like a hypocrite with my yoga mat, and when I got to class, I told the teacher, an extremely serene man, what I’d just done. He laughed. “Oh, I do that,” he said. “People ask me if I’m always so calm and I tell them the only time I’m not is when I’m driving.” I laughed a little, but this did not make me feel better.
Walking back from class, I realized that we pedestrians are not safe on the sidewalk either. Drivers pulling in and out of parking lots do not see us or do not care. Most large parking lots have stop signs at their exits to the sidewalk and street. They must be invisible. The majority of drivers (I have started to count) wheel right on through them.
At home, I can see and hear traffic from my second-story windows. At certain times of day, around the corner from two schools, it is a busy block between two intersections. Mothers stream by in silver SUVs, cell phones glued to ears, kids strapped into back seats. The parents on foot have a hard time navigating. When I first moved here five years ago, I heard honking only once or twice a week. Now it’s several times a day. Occasionally, in a very satisfying scenario, two motorcycle cops set up at opposite corners and pull over drivers one after another and the honking stops.
What is the answer? Do we have to post cops on every corner to make people slow down? Do we have to put up what are called “traffic calming” signs everywhere? Slow down, smell the roses … Somehow we have to make drivers and walkers more aware.
According to the Walk San Diego website (www.walksandiego.org), we are 36 times more likely to be killed walking than driving a car; each year more than 6,000 pedestrians are killed and 90,000 are injured in the United States.
Often, as I am pondering and gazing out my kitchen window, I see families and other groups of people go by on those Segway people movers. In single file, they glide gracefully along the sidewalk. Walkers on wheels. They have on helmets and look as if they are on their way to some sort of game, but really, they are tourists seeing the sights in a different way. I try to imagine myself on one. Would I feel any safer? I doubt it. With my luck, I’d run over small dogs and sail right into a school bus. Come to think of it, I remember reading that the owner of the company that manufactures them died on one a few months ago. Less than a year after British tycoon Jim Heselden bought the Segway company from its American inventor, he was tooling around his property in Yorkshire on a people mover and drove it over a 30-foot cliff into the river below. No specific cause of the accident was ever determined, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it involved a speeding lorry or mini.
So I guess I’ll stick to using my own legs, learning to be a calmly cautious walker. I can hope that the world and its drivers slow down long enough to read signs and spare a few lives. We may have to put up more blinking signs warning drivers they are going 60 in a school zone (as if they didn’t know!) or that right of way doesn’t always mean them. I may have to walk to more yoga classes. But I refuse to wear a helmet.
This essay was published in the La Jolla Light on January 19, 2012.