Broad Implications of Narrow Streets
Every once in a while, from my perch in the local library, I watch a bedraggled, elderly man in a wheelchair spin down the road a dozen-or-so meters beneath my dangling feet.
Without hesitancy, this man charts his fitful course smack-dab in the middle of a narrow thoroughfare within a busy commercial district.
As he descends the low-grade incline, he stops and starts his chair, punctuating his monologue, fluctuating between indecipherable mutters and hearty proclamations.
He has looped several plastic bags over each handlebar. These flimsy banners balloon into funky, asymmetrical tail lights. I watch them grow smaller as he approaches the intersection.
Who is this man? Where might he be headed? Does he recognize his recklessness?
Once the fluttering bags disappear around the corner, I turn back to my laptop. By this point, the screen has fallen asleep, and my legs swing aimlessly for a moment.
Will this man safely reach his destination? I’m uncertain of the answer. His behavior is erratic, and I have yet to witness anyone attempt to ascertain if he’s alright.
Reactions of onlookers vary. A few car horns impatiently honk. Twice, grown men have whipped out their phones to snap photos or record videos. Most pedestrian passersby tuck their heads and pretend ignorance. Some pick up their pace, surpassing the scene without a second glance.
I imagine the latter reaction comes from the same sense of awkwardness that I feel when I encounter off-kilter public behavior. My empathy is activated, but I lack confidence to engage with someone that seems unstable. I have a kind smile and a polite “Hello,” but I prefer to maintain a cautious distance.
This ineffectual empathy extends to my neighborhood’s solicitors of spare change. They comprise a semi-organized collective, territory divvied up strategically, each person occupying a designated space near a popular shop.
Profuse sandwich boards lend them a hand. Meant to slow the masses and entice the shoppers, these advertisements reroute all pedestrians, simultaneously slicing and dicing up personal space. Exposure to the homeless solicitor is now inevitable.
Some of the men hold signs — cardboard reminders of vulnerability, the number of children they support, occupations held in a past life. Others wave a sheaf of papers — the free, local rag — setting up the semblance of a business transaction, a sluice for the donor’s discomfort.
Several steps from my apartment, a short, bearded fellow sits upon an upturned crate, leaning against a small tree outside of a cafe. I’m not a cash-carrying tourist, nor an excited shopper, only a resident returning home. To him and to all others, I excuse myself: “Sorry, sir. Not today.”
Nor any other day. I donated once, but chances are I won’t be doing it again. Those that remember my face have started to ignore me. No longer do I hear the frothy compliments of “Nice dress!” and, “I like your hat!”
Nevertheless, I’ll keep struggling with my humanity. I have an urge to utilize my relative prosperity, and the sensation of guilt is palpable.
But this doesn’t last long. Urbanity means constant sensory bombardment. My thoughts quickly veer into various forms of inquiry and judgment. I don’t own a car, and I drive infrequently. So when I’m out and about, I’m an unencumbered and curious pedestrian.
And for the last year or so, there’s been non-stop construction and maintenance in several neighborhoods surrounding my apartment. So I’ve become particularly interested in local behaviors and habits of transportation.
How do we share the road? We have plenty of statistics on car crashes, but science has a harder time identifying and tracking the regular and persistent stress of travel. The everyday madness of our mobility. I’m interested in the narrow escapes and near misses. And I’m baffled by what I see and what I experience on a day-to-day basis.
There is the man behind the wheel of a luxury automobile, speeding.
I won’t attempt to surmise his exact age, but he’s definitely not a seasoned driver. I’m already making assumptions about how he was able to afford such a car. When the light flashes green, he zooms around the corner, despite the stream of pedestrians already pushing off from the curb.
There is the driver in a vehicle with tinted windows.
She runs the red light —heavy, full seconds after she was meant to stop. Thank the gods of the vacuous, there’s a delay in sideswiping traffic; it’s just long enough. Though a middle-aged pedestrian has had the wits scared out of her throughout a demonstration of extraordinary reflex.
There is the shouting group of young professionals.
They’re discussing where they should go for dinner. They form a human barricade beneath the metal support of the crosswalk signal. Everyone else is struggling to navigate through this clump of animated opinions.
There is the cute couple snapping a selfie in the center of the street.
They are intent on capturing a very specific cityscape background. Did they notice that the walk sign has dissolved into a flashing hand? The girl is now unbuttoning her jacket and striking a pose, head tilted, left leg slightly popped. Her boyfriend kneels on the pavement for that perfect, flattering angle.
There is the driver parking his SUV, taking up two spaces on a one-way street.
Is he headed to the popular restaurant nearby? Wearing sunglasses at night? He runs a hand through dark, slicked back hair and speaks loudly into his phone, “I’m so gucci!” Hmm. I’d rather you be a skilled driver. The bright headlights of oncoming traffic do not deter him from letting the door of his vehicle hang wide open.
There is the huge delivery truck.
He’s barreling down another narrow street, well above the speed limit, moving inches away from cars parked on either side. No room for error. Doesn’t matter that children play here. Or that dogs trot off-leash next to their trusting owners. Or that parents push strollers into intersections, assuming that everyone will break fully before the Stop sign.
There is the trio of friends. The large party of coworkers. The married couple. The two women grabbing a bite after work. The family outing. The commuter cyclists. They are The Blob.
Groups, large and small, that straddle the entire breadth of the sidewalk, opting out of a sensible single-file formation to accommodate two-way foot/bike traffic.
The Blob is the preferred formation for nine out of ten groups. Remarkably, this choice is location- and context-independent. Narrow sidewalks, blind corners, steep drop-offs, heavily congested areas — it’s still going to pretend no one else requires passage here.
When my husband and I see The Blob approaching, we exchange a knowing and annoyed arch of the eyebrow. Stubbornly, we go single-file, deferring to our ingrained ethical mores, even though The Blob has already awakened my inner rogue.
If I were to suddenly transform into an ungainly, burly giant, would I plow through all of the sidewalk hogs — as courteously as possible, displaying a surprisingly pleasant temperament? Would I then pause with a serious nod and calmly say, “Remember to mind your step… or there will surely be consequences”?
The Blob is everywhere. And occasionally I become tired of doing the right thing. Not that stepping into the gutter is necessarily the right thing. Or squeezing up against the side of a building. Or pausing to await collision, curious to see whether The Blob’s lateral bits will acknowledge my presence.
Yes, this is one of my pet peeves. And yes, I could expound further on The Blob’s ubiquity. It would hardly be a digression. But for your sake, I’ll start wrapping things up.
Perhaps people are innocently absorbed in their own affairs. Perhaps they’re just selfish or callous.
Regardless of underlying reasons, too many people appear oblivious to hazard.
All in all, my observations culminate into firm support for driverless technology (of course, someone needs to address the hackability issue).
The rare glitches of continuous machine calculations are far more favorable than our frequent human disregard of road rules and safety norms.
Especially when every fifth person — pedestrian and driver alike — is looking down to get their digital fix.
I don’t want a cellphone lane. I want people to look up from their screens, for goodness sake.
To remain alert.
To uphold their responsibilities as fervently as they demand their rights.
We don’t need to travel at the same speed or in the same direction to peacefully share the road; we only need to respect our space. In all lanes.
My fellow travelers, I wish you a safe and joyful journey.
Just don’t be a Blob.