Crossed up by crosswalks

Published 6:06 am Friday, June 4, 2010

It’s a warm, sunny day and I’m walking downtown. It’s also a busy day and I’m thinking hard not only about my immediate errand but about other tasks that lie ahead. As I step out into the street, I finally look around and see a full-size SUV about four feet from my left leg.

Lucky for me that the driver is one of those who actually watches for pedestrians in crosswalks.

In our automobile-based land, pedestrians may not be rare but they are far from common. And drivers, as a result, generally don’t have the habit of keeping a sharp eye out for walkers and runners who are trying to cross the street, even at spots where there is a lot of foot traffic.

As an occasional walker and a frequent runner, observing traffic has become an ingrained habit for me. I have learned that even cars which are already stopped at intersections are not likely to wait for a pedestrian unless I make direct eye contact with the driver. Drivers turning right are almost certainly not going to see me coming up parallel with them. And even if I am standing at a crosswalk, it’s quite unlikely that anyone is going to stop for me.

It’s interesting that my travails as a pedestrian haven’t made me entirely conscious of crosswalk responsibilities when I’m at the wheel. I know that I don’t always make way for pedestrians. Sometimes I don’t see them in time. Sometimes I do, but know from a look in the rearview mirror that a stop is going to mean getting rear-ended by the tailgater behind me.

There are a few places in town where it always pays to be ready to stop for a crosswalk. There’s frequent foot traffic crossing 1st Drive NW near the YMCA, Austin Medical Center and The Point. Drivers might as well just plan on a few stops along that stretch. There is also a lot of foot traffic along 12th St. SW, mixed with traffic that is generally going faster than the limit — another good place for some extra caution and courtesy.

The question of mixing cars and pedestrians and several other kinds of traffic is going to become more important in the future — maybe not this year or the next, but before too long, as fuel prices and environmental issues force us to change.

It makes, for instance, almost no sense to drive a full-size car a mile or so to the store to pick up a couple of things, at least not when the weather is above freezing. The small vehicles that are taking over roads in retirement communities — golf carts and the like — go plenty fast for a two-mile trip, cost almost nothing to operate and are a whole lot less deadly. This won’t be just a fuel issue, but one associated with our aging population; we live in a time and place where access to a vehicle is very important, but is it really wise for some of us with fading reflexes to be wheeling a ton-and-a-half of metal around at 35 mph?

For some of the same environmental and cost reasons, we’re likely to see more bicycles and more pedestrians in the future. Cars don’t mix particularly well with either bikes or walking, although they’ve been made to do so in many major cities. But we’re going to have to acommodate those changes.

Not the least of those adjustments is the city’s automobile-based layout. Much of the major shopping has migrated to the far edge of town, not particularly convenient for people who aren’t driving a car or truck. It works well enough now. But in another decade, if we become more energy-conscious, will it make sense to drive to the edge of town so often?

Meanwhile, we’re left with the currently smaller issue of how to fit walkers in with drivers at crosswalks. The real answer is for drivers to start seeing pedestrians, to give way to people who are waiting at crosswalks when that can be done safely and to really be sure, before hanging a right turn at an intersection, that someone isn’t about to step off the curb.

I’m glad that at least one person, the driver into whose path I walked earlier this week, was paying attention.