Public Comment

Commentary: Car, Bike and Pedestrian Citizenship

By H. Scott Prosterman
Friday February 29, 2008

Pedestrians have the right of way. That’s a good thing since the law protects us from large, dangerous machinery, operated by caffeine-fueled drivers with nasty dispositions.  

But the road rage ogres have their walking counterparts on sidewalks and street corners. They boldly walk into oncoming traffic without so much as looking at the answer to their death wish. In the crosswalk they slow their gait as if to say, “I have the right of way, and I’m walking as slowly as I can to punish you for driving a car.” 

Enough already! Everybody has a turn as a pedestrian in life. We park the car and walk to the meeting, store, lunch, gym or park. We lock the bike and do the same, so we have to change the mindset many times in the course of a day. 

We drive, we park, we walk; it’s a vicious cycle. We drive, we honk, we flip the bird, we scream, we stew, we calm down; and the painted ponies go up and down. We’re captured on a carousel. 

A lot of drivers are brazen in their disregard of this important law that protects the wandering masses. This is criminal and should be punished. Hitting a pedestrian with a car when the driver is at fault should result in jail time—no exceptions, no matter how old, addled or mis-medicated. As the survivor of two car-bike collisions, including one in Berkeley last year, I feel strongly about it. 

At the same time, some pedestrians should be drawn and quartered from the nearest lamppost, when they manifest their death wish by walking in to moving traffic. In Berkeley, I have seen: 

1.) Schoolchildren walking into oncoming traffic on Sacramento Street, causing screeching brakes and much panic, because they’re being raised to believe that all traffic will stop for them—not just in the street. 

2.) A pre-school teacher leading children (8 years old or younger) single file through a crosswalk, against the light for two cycles. The police call that disrupting traffic, and award “special” citations for that. Teaching children that traffic will always stop for them sends the wrong message. 

3.) People leaving City Hall walking into heavy traffic on Martin Luther King Way, engrossed in conversation, and looking indignant when people honk at them. 

4.) Skateboarders frequently abusing the rights of being a “pedestrian,” and acting like they’re driving a car, terrorizing bicyclist and REAL pedestrians. 

Let’s all just get along, and get with some basic rules for . . . pedestrian etiquette. I say that with a straight face. Here are the “8 Simple Rules for Surviving Pedestrian Wars”: 

1.) Never walk into oncoming traffic. Don’t be like Blanche Dubois in the middle of an intersection. Don’t depend on the kindness of strangers.  

2.) Look and watch where you are going. Even if traffic is stopped all 4 ways, make eye-contact with the nearest driver before stepping off the curb. This is a courtesy and also re-assures the driver that the person walking in front of them is a lucid human being who is cognizant of his/her surroundings. One less uncertainty can be a real comfort in bad traffic. 

3.) When in the crosswalk, walk a straight line. When not in the crosswalk, walk a straight line. This minimizes the time that you are vulnerable and exposed to traffic. 

4.) Don’t slow down in the crosswalk, just because you can. This might prompt an impatient driver to blast his horn in your ear, just because he can! Or, he might scream at you, “Hey motherfucker, don’t depend on the kindness of strangers.”  

5.) Don’t taunt drivers waiting for you by a.) Slowing your pace; b.) Slowing down and looking away; c.) Slowing down and stopping to make a point in a conversation, as if no one is waiting for you to move out of their way. 

6.) Do not make a sudden turn of bow into a street, assuming that everyone will slam on their brakes for you, especially if you’re on a skateboard. Never be overconfident about any stranger’s sense of humanity. 

7.) Don’t play chicken with cars or display body language that says, “Come on and hit me—see what happens.” Remember, cars win every time, and I’ve never known a re-match to occur. (I can hear it now, “As soon as my broken ribs and clavicle heal, I want to see that guy in Vegas; and this time I’m going to train better and come out strong from the beginning.”) 

8.) Focus—it’s a dangerous world out there; Bush Jr. and Fox News are telling everyone to be afraid. FDR said not to be afraid, so that makes fear a partisan issue. But pedestrian etiquette has no partisan boundaries—at least it shouldn’t. 

Berkeley continues to create new and potentially grave hazards to pedestrians and cyclists with what they euphemistically call “traffic calming circles.” Oh, please! Linda Maio has championed further constructions of these things that actually force traffic into crosswalks, placing pedestrians and cyclists at greater risk. I’ve seen cars bump curbs and seen cyclists knocked down trying to avoid them. (Me and others.) Amazingly, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition has endorsed them, even though the president of that group acknowledged to me in a phone call that they present new hazards. Maybe after Tom Bates is recalled, all these issues can be re-visited. 

The City of Berkeley could do a lot more to protect bicyclists—like posting signs on all streets that say, “Look in the door mirror before opening the door on a bicyclist!” There’s plenty of room for them on the “Parking” signposts. The mayor, as well as every member of the Berkeley City Council has ignored this request, which I have made repeatedly. I argued this and sent e-mails about it for years before I got doored. Getting doored did not improve my standing with Mayor Bates, Maio, Kriss Worthington or any other city officials who can’t respond to phone calls or e-mails. 

Pedestrians have the right of way and that’s a good thing. Having the right of way also carries responsibilities for thoughtful, non-provocative behavior. Just follow the rules, and we can all remain friends whether driving, riding a bike, walking or riding a skateboard. All together now, “ . . . and the painted ponies go up and down . . .” 


H. Scott Prosterman is a Berkeley resident.