Friday, January 30, 2015

Reactivating and a Some Thoughts about Experience and Respect Amongst Transport Modes

I’m finally starting to come out of blog-hibernation, though this would hardly be of interest to anyone. Yet, I’ve been thinking about some things that I would like to share abroad in the Salem thought-world.

Over the last months a number of pedestrians have been struck and killed or injured in town. This is much more likely, I suppose, in the grey winter months with their late dawns and early sunsets. However, I have noticed in the reporting that the tendency is to imply that it must always be the fault of the pedestrian (and, by extension, the cyclist when a bike is involved). Nothing so explicit as: “the earnest driver inevitably had to hit the irresponsible person choosing to walk in a city built for cars,” but more along the lines of “the victim, who was found to have articles of non-reflective clothing on….” Well, perhaps not that blatant, but the point is always there: unless a person is decked out in LEDs head-to-toe, brandishing a spotlight, and sending out flares, you are just a menace if you are not encased in your protective/aggressive metal exo-skeleton on the streets of Salem. Regardless of the actual conditions involved, the presumption is that anything not in a car is an accident waiting to happen.

Since I drive a good deal (much more lately than I would like, really), I am well aware that a great many pedestrians in Salem are clothed in dark raiment, and that there are a good number of very foolhardy cyclists in town who disobey traffic rules and common sense…riding the wrong way on streets, dashing out in traffic, failing to obey traffic laws and signs, and being nearly invisible in the night.

I get it. I’ve seen it. I’m with you.

I am also very aware that those who walk or bike should take precautions to be visible by choosing some lighter-colored or reflective materials on clothing or footwear and having front-back-side lighting and reflectors when biking at night.

But…I also know that as a motorist I often feel a deep sense that I should be able to move along at my desired pace unimpaired by other cars, let alone by pedestrians and cyclists. A tremendous sense of impatience with anything or anyone slowing me up can steal across my mind when out and about. Auto-entitlement happens to me, as well.

It is just like the way riding a bicycle makes one want to disregard stop signs so as to keep the momentum going and not dismount at each intersection, or the way being a pedestrian sometimes makes one want to take advantage of gaps in traffic to make mid-block crossings that might be legal but are (in practical terms) quite dangerous—so as to get to where I am going just a bit faster.

What I am saying is that just as cyclists and pedestrians need to put themselves into the seats of motorists, so motorists need to put themselves into the shoes and saddles of pedestrians and cyclists so as to be more alert and observant, as well as compassionate and careful. This is much easier to do when one has experience walking or biking on a regular basis. It is very easy to forget these things when in our vehicular cocoons all the time.

As I go about my business in Salem—with all of the poor biking, driving, and pedestrating (okay, that’s not a word) going on, it is tempting to become rather cranky about the OTHER person and his/her faults. But, this isn’t really very helpful. It is just more of the same rancor that raises but never solves problems. Rather, it would be better for more folks to know what it is like to be on foot around town or to experience what goes on when trying to use a bicycle in this remade-for-cars city.

Then, for the majority who drives, the temptation to make a sudden turn into a parking lot across a break in oncoming traffic will not merely be an academic exercise in flooring it: it will be accompanied by an experience-driven reflex to check and make sure no-one is walking along the sidewalk when I dart in, or cycling towards the point of my intersection with the bike lane.

We can all use a bit more compassion, a bit less entitlement, and a great deal more experience. I would very much suggest that rather than focus only on armoring pedestrians and cyclists, we work towards a city of greater respect for each other’s situation. Such respect comes from truly understanding what it is like to be that person in some small measure. It means getting out of our well-worn and blinkered lives.

Accidents and tragedies will continue to happen in this broken world; but, there is no reason to make them more likely by blithely reducing the others we encounter along the way in our travels to mere inconveniences. “There, but for the grace of God, go I….”

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