Monday, March 2, 2015

Jay Walker

Do you know Jay Walker? If you're a Philadelphian, chances are, he's you. You've crossed an intersection mid-block or against a light, likely annoying a taxicab or a white BMW with yellow license plates gunning for you.

The term dates back to 1905, perhaps sooner, and refers to a "jay," or a bumpkin from the country who has never seen a car. Throughout the early 20th Century, a campaign emerged to discourage pedestrians from meandering into the street. At the time, jaywalking was a true safety concern. With cars quickly replacing horse drawn carriages, unaware pedestrians became bullseyes for beastly hunks of loosely controllable metal that didn't come with the technological safety packages we take for granted today. 

But has the time come to once again tolerate Jay Walker. Inga Saffron pointed to the European mentality that jaywalking actually creates safer streets. And if you really think about it, it does. Traffic is least likely to speed in places that see the greatest amounts of pedestrians and tourists ogling the skyline. They're most likely to gun the gas across bridges, through tunnels, and where roads widen to allow the greatest acceleration. And drivers do so, even if it means getting to the next red-light two seconds earlier. 

Our suburban highways and interchanges serve a completely different purpose than an urban grid. The goal of a suburban highway is to create efficiency and generate speed, and many of them were designed with no room for pedestrians. 

But downtown, the grid does what it always has. It primarily provides pedestrians a mode of transportation while simply accommodating cars as an afterthought. If you've ever ridden a bike across town, you know what it's like to traverse our gridded map on what is essentially a horse. Without a keen knack for timing traffic lights and avoiding police cruisers, most cars can't make it across Center City significantly faster than a bike. Isolate that down to one specific neighborhood, and you might make it two blocks on foot faster than a car.

We can do better.
Unfortunately, Saffron's article carries with it a nagging, "but wait, what?" caveat. Citing a study that shows Philadelphia's pedestrian fatalities are more than double the national average, it allows the naysayers the opportunity to point out that the national average includes suburban and rural areas, as well as cities that actively discourage pedestrianization. I'd be curious to see how Philadelphia stacks up to cities like New York or Boston. 

But statistics are moot because data is far to easy to manipulate, especially when comparing cities. The bottom line is, Philadelphia's residents are trending away from cars and towards their bikes and feet. Regardless of where the city falls in any national study, its target demographic is demanding wider sidewalks and narrower streets. Jay Walker is back, Suburban Sandy is just a guest. The city should be doing everything it can to accommodate its citizens, not those fleeing at five on Friday.

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