A few weeks ago, I bought a couple of small, blinking lights – the ones Oregonians buy for their dog’s collars—to clip onto my raincoat and bag. I’d nearly been taken out in three crosswalks, crossing with the light, after looking both ways, in one dark and rainy week. I know it is dorky. I am hoping that it is so dorky that it becomes cool, but I doubt it. I will say that it has been effective; three cars stopped for me while I have been waiting to cross the street last week. I feel just a little bit more visible now.
In town, we have had a series of accidents—fatal and not—involving cars and cyclists or walkers, those of us with no metal amour around our bodies. We hear tales constantly about near-misses: the college student dressed in a black OSU sweatshirt on Monroe, the cyclist who was cut off IN THE GREEN PAINT by a driver who did not understand the significance of the signage, the car turning into the path of a city bus. On a rainy winter evening, it is just hard to see out there.
For the last one hundred years, we have been involved in an experiment in urban design. Rather than designing (and just evolving) our built environment around people walking, using mass transit, or driving carts, we have been designing for single occupancy cars. Entire departments at every level of government have been created for the express purpose of moving cars, each carrying one or two people, from place to place as smoothly and efficiently as possible. When we talk about intersections, a failing intersection holds cars up too long. When we design streets, we curve the corners so that cars can move more easily around them. We have longer blocks, arterial and collector streets, cul-de-sacs all designed to make driving easier and to separate people from cars. We have streets that say “Drive fast” cutting through neighborhoods, with schools, churches, stores, and the gym along them. Even our houses and shopping centers are now designed to be viewed from a moving car, not a slower walk.
In many areas of the country, if you wanted to walk somewhere, there is, literally, nowhere to walk. There is the road and the drainage ditch. No shoulder. In other places, you have to fight with five or six lanes of traffic to cross the street to the grocery store, sitting in a huge parking lot. If there is a sidewalk or a bike lane, it just may disappear when the road is narrowed by an old bridge or a merge. Because of rural sprawl, encouraged by cars and cheap gas, many people live ten or fifteen miles away from basic services and jobs. They have to drive. There is no other option.
We are beginning to see the failures of this concept. As climate change worsens, and peak oil, which was put off by fracking, finally becomes a reality, this settlement and design pattern will collapse. Our task—my task, here in Corvallis—is to work to lessen the impact of this crisis on our daily lives. I don’t know what to do about the rural sprawl, but I can imagine what a shift in perspective might do locally, in my own built environment. We need to start with a basic, radical principle.
Everyone has the right to be safe on our streets. Trucks moving goods, cars, bikes, scooters, and walkers. No one user should be valued above all others.