On January 8th this year (2015), I was walking towards a crosswalk near my house. From a distance I could see people running across, in a hurry, as the green pedestrian man was flashing. I had been reading Jane Jacob’s book, “The Life and Death of Great American Cities” (wiki on book) and was thinking about the art form of the city, in this case related to a dance. It was a bit cold and windy, probably no one wanted to wait an extra minute on the sidewalk, so grown women and men were speed walking, skipping, hopping in different directions to get to the other side. I imagined a stage, the crosswalk running horizontally in front of the audience. One man had on a trench coat and it fluttered in the wind, suddenly very important in front of some headlights. Another woman came in diagonally from the wings, wearing a dress and holding down her hair. I thought, wow, you don’t even need a director, these people are dancing and rushing and making their hearts pound a little harder just because of a this little green light!
Jane Jacobs, one of my favorite authors, refers to the “intricate sidewalk ballet” of Hudson Street (see p 50, Chapter 2. Use of sidewalks; safety) where “individual dancers… all have distinctive parts which miraculously reinforce each other and compose an orderly whole. The ballet of the good city sidewalk never repeats itself from place to place and in any one place is always replete with new improvisations”. The book tries (and succeeds) to find life in the stagnant environment created for us by urban planners. With that in mind, I began to analyse my crosswalk.
Filming the crosswalk
Many traffic lights in Spain, and around the world, have a beeping noise that accompanies the green man who tells you to walk (see photo above), also called Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS, see http://acb.org/node/617). The sound is apparently for the blind, and legend has it that Spain is probably one of the best countries to live in if you happen to be blind, not because of all the APSs (which are quite abundant) but because of the ONCE (the National Association of Spanish Blind People, ONCE), which runs a very famous and lucrative lottery business. In any case, when the light turns green for pedestrians, there is a loud bird-like chirping noise, which on some days sounds more like shots from a laser gun (listen to, APS sound). At this particular crosswalk the shooting last for 18 seconds, then the green pedestrian man (who also happens to be standing on a bicycle), begins to flash and the beeper keeps time, beeping now with each green blink. Alas, I’ve counted the number of flashes just to know how long I have left if I decide to risk my life by crossing on the flashing green. This green pedestrian light blinks 13 times (per cycle), quite long compared to other lights, which leaves about 13 more seconds to cross (18+13 = 31 seconds, keep that in mind theatre directors!).
So after my vision of people on a crosswalk stage, I decided to video some crossings. I filmed two on my smart phone (Jan 9th, Jan 13th), then, a few days later, on the way back from work I took out my not so heavy artillery, an Canon IXUS camera that is usually in my knapsack, to get better videos. Instead of coming out of the metro and looking nervously at the crosswalk to see if I had time to run for it, I walked over to a corner with a good vantage point and waited for the light to turn green for pedestrians, then started video-taping (the whole process probably took me an extra 2 min on the walk home). Over the months of January, February and March I filmed this about 38 times. Some did not turn out very well, too much wind (video too shaky), or a bus got in the way, but all in all I got about 30 good crosswalk videos (see a very low quality version).
What did I find out about crosswalk ballet?
Like most things in life, you can break down crosswalk-crossing into a beginning, middle and end. The initial and final walking speeds of people crossing seem to be much higher than during the middle, creating what one could call “eager starters” and “late runners”. Like me, very few people are probably in a serious rush, but the latter two participants seem to be willing to risk their lives just to get to the other side. I admit that standing there waiting to cross makes one ancy, which stimulates you to just get it over with, or is everyone just nervous about getting on stage?
I did not film any accidents, but there were some close calls. When the little green man is flashing, the cars get a flashing yellow light, which means that they’re allowed to cross as long as they don’t hit anyone. The flashing stimulates faster movement by crossers, but also seems to be asking the cars to get involved in the dance. Cars are always menacing to pedestrians, but now even more so, as they seem to want to nudge you with their large metal noses. Worse than cars are the buses, they get much closer to pedestrians.
Lots of things are happening in the videos, I suppose I could spend much more time analyzing them, but after viewing them all a couple of times I see a battle between the people (the dancers) and the vehicles. People talking on their mobiles, texting, walking slowly, between or outside the lines, people keeping the same step cadence, people riding bikes, and dragging suitcases. In one video, the wind blew off a woman’s hat, and the man behind stepped on it, to stop it. In another, a young man is being arrested for apparently stealing a municipal bicycle, I can see as he is asked to enter the squad car. Then the cars, those monsters, the impersonal people holders. They are less diverse, less complicated. They’re either stopped properly, before the crosswalk, impatiently waiting to cross the river, blocking the way, looking out of place, or worse, running a red light at the beginning or end of the act.
So my daughter asks me, What have you learned from video taping the local crosswalk? Dear daughter, I would say that rule 1 is, do not use your mobile while crossing the street, rule 2, try not to be the first or the last to cross, go with the middle, and rule 3, do not cross when the green man is flashing.