When does “walk” mean “don’t walk”?
By Rob Sylvain
At crosswalks all around the city, notably on the way to Deering Oaks from downtown, there are strange signs posted for pedestrians explaining that “walk” really doesn’t mean “walk,” but rather “watch for turning cars.” Next to the familiar white symbol of an eyeless human figure, trippant, is an apparent clarification of what any reasonable person might otherwise assume is an offer of safe passage. The revised definition amounts to a warning that the unwary ambler has only a slightly improved chance of reaching the other side of the street while the white guiding light blazes. It may as well read “good luck,” or “look out!”
How could this be? Why would the sign say “walk” without stopping automobile traffic first? The fact is that in many intersections, pedestrians are asked to walk even as the green light allows oncoming traffic and, worse, following traffic, to turn left into the path of hapless pedestrians. In addition, cars and trucks stopped for the red light flanking the pedestrian way may be allowed to turn right into the same foot traffic. This is true even in intersections that have a button walkers can push to request a safe crossing.
Sure, motorists are technically supposed to yield, and technically pedestrians have the right of way, but to exercise that right shouldn’t jeopardize one’s life. There are even some signs in town pointing out that turning traffic must yield to pedestrians. (As an ironic aside, those few signs may actually lead some drivers to believe this to be an exception, rather than the rule.) However, the understood pretext is that cars must yield only if it is safe, convenient, and doesn’t interrupt the steady flow of vehicular traffic.
There are multiple permutations of this madness. Try crossing Portland Street from the main post office. Portland Street and Park Street traffic stops on red (of course, they can still turn right in front of you off of Portland Street). Southbound vehicles turning left off of Forest Avenue in front of you are deliberately given an advance green before your walk signal, apparently to allow all the turning cars to get through before bothering them to stop for a walker. This assumes only a few cars will be waiting to turn left, that there won’t be a stream of others blazing off the highway and rushing to follow the others. Then, incredibly, the walk sign lights, but the motorists still have a green light to turn left, with your back to them, as you attempt to cross four lanes of traffic.
The worst of it is that almost every intersection is different; some with buttons, some one-way, signs, no signs, you name it. You have to be an expert or an omniscient to discern what exactly is meant by the invitation to walk. Such is the plight of the new urban pedestrian, right? Get used to it, you say? I suppose we will if we must, but meanwhile, we can’t have a real discussion about jaywalking, because if walk doesn’t mean “walk,” then “don’t walk” loses its meaning, as well.
Rob Sylvain is a musician and music producer. He and his family live in Bayside.