I traveled to Nashville recently and, as is often the case for me, I think about Knoxville in the context of the city I’m visiting. I walked extensively in Nashville, just as I walk extensively in downtown Knoxville. That means dealing with cars and crosswalks. It means jaywalking sometimes and carefully following the rules other times.
I remember several years ago, Michael Haynes wrote about crosswalks, jaywalking and what is really the safest way to navigate downtown streets. It was the first time I noticed someone mention the safety of crossing mid-block as opposed to the corners of blocks. That is precisely what one does in Paris, I would learn later. The crosswalks are not at corners, but rather moved down several meters. The streets are one-way, primarily, so you only have to worry about one direction as you cross.
Why is this more safe? Because turning vehicles at intersections are often looking elsewhere for on-coming cars and are not considering pedestrians. It’s generally these turning drivers that give us walkers reason to be concerned. I recently came close to being hit, something that happens from time-to-time when you often walk in a city. It happened as I walked across Summit Hill toward the 100 block of Gay Street.
Gestures were exchanged. Mine was to hold my hand up in a “stop” sign to the car while pointing to the walking sign which clearly showed I had ten seconds or so left. The lady driving the SUV in question then motioned to the same signal – which was flashing a red hand much like the one I had flashed to her. I forget her precise words, but it was something along the lines of, “Sir, did you notice you have a flashing red hand?”
I had an epiphany: the sign didn’t mean the same thing to each of us. She had a green light to go straight or turn and assumed the sign meant I should not cross. I know better, but who cares, if I wind up dead?
So I’m walking in Nashville and I get curious. As you can see in the photograph, jaywalking is alive and well in Nashville. A closer inspection of their signals, however, revealed a couple of significant differences. First, most of the crosswalks also have a high-pitched beeping sound for blind pedestrians. I’ve never seen a blind pedestrian in Knoxville, but that seems like a pretty cool idea.
Second, and more important for this discussion, the walking lights flashed a walking guy while the countdown – in white – commenced. This seems to take away the ambiguity. Clearly, that’s how long you have to walk. At the end, the red hand returns and walking is forbidden. I think even a non-downtown resident could understand that.
As I watched our signals again last night and pondered this piece, I realized that, not only do we have the mixed signal of a red, flashing hand meaning “walk,” but our signals don’t even display consistently. If you look at the photographs you’ll notice the progression: Walking guy in white (lasts a nanosecond), then red countdown letters, then as the time grows short, red hand plus red letters. Except that it doesn’t always happen for some reason!
If you notice, again, in the photographs you see a “9” with a red hand and a “3” with a red hand. But wait, there’s a “5” with no red hand. It’s not the primary problem, but it doesn’t help clarify an already confusing signal.
So, to me, the answer seems obvious: the walking guy in white should be up the entire time walking is allowed. That way, even a suburbanite in an SUV would know pedestrians are allowed to walk. The countdown could then be in red for attention, but clearly it would be a countdown of how long the pedestrian has left to walk – not a countdown until he or she is allowed to walk as my angrily gesturing friend assumed.
Until that happens, drivers need to understand that the countdown – albeit with a red flashing hand – is how much longer pedestrians are allowed to walk. Pedestrian friends, you need to understand that drivers will continue to not get this and will come close to running over people like you and me. And they will continue to be angry because we walked with a red, flashing hand clearly displayed.