Thursday, January 8, 2009

Crossing the street

Two houses and several lifetimes ago, I lived in Northwest Washington DC, in a nice family neighborhood of brick colonials and giant oak trees. The main drag, upper Connecticut Avenue, is lined with little shops and businesses which people often walk to, provided they can make it across the street alive. Getting across is definitely not for chickens. There are only two lights for a six block shopping area, and the concept of pedestrian right of way is completely foreign to type A DC drivers. A few months before we moved, an elderly lady was struck and killed in the crosswalk. After the accident, city workers equipped each side of the fatal intersection with bright orange safety flags, intended to make pedestrians easier for distracted drivers to notice. You grab a flag, wave it over your head, and step bravely out into the street, hoping the driver bearing down on you isn't colorblind. Sometimes the car stops, and sometimes the driver honks and swerves around you. Occasionally, some belligerent yahoo rolls down the window and chews you out for having the temerity to step off the sidewalk.

It's different here in Berkeley. Pedestrians rule. Even as you step out into the street, oncoming traffic starts slowing down a block away. Cars idle patiently until you're all the way across. At first, this is refreshing, especially when you're in pedestrian mode. But once you get behind the wheel, you realize the courtesy is not reciprocal. Berkeleyites don't walk across the street, they mosey. They stroll languidly arm in arm, talk on the phone, pause in the intersection to pull up their socks. And they jaywalk. Not the run-like-hell-so-you-dodge-the-car technique you see in big cities, which has an element of sport and demonstrates an implicit respect for the driver. This is slow, deliberate, in-your-face jaywalking, striding recklessly in front of an oncoming car, walking, not running, against the light with nary a thought to the ensuing Prius pile up. It's understood that walkers and bicyclists are more evolved beings, their carbon footprints light as angel wings. Better slam on the brakes, petroleum junky. Let the virtuous pass.

Berkeley's driving etiquette, like its foreign policy, is strictly local. My friend's brother, who is from Oakland, gave me fair warning. "Once you leave the Berkeley city limits, don't expect the cars to stop so you can cross the street. They'll mow you down."

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