Death Before Yielding

Renewed efforts to ease the age-old blood feud among Boston’s drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians blow right past a key question: What if, deep down, we kind of enjoy the madness that transpires on our roads every day?

I nearly killed a woman in Cambridge a few years back. I was driving at a reasonable speed through Harvard Square when she stepped off a curb and walked right into the street without looking. I hit the brakes, bringing the car to a hard stop about three feet from her. Since the woman wasn’t even in a crosswalk, I expected some acknowledgment of wrongdoing—a chagrined wave, a “my bad,” anything. Instead, I got a look that suggested I had just taken away her right to vote and buried a meat axe in her adopted greyhound. Clearly, I was the oppressor in this little tableau, and she, as the oppressed, was no longer obligated to follow the law.

The whole encounter was no doubt partly due to Cambridge’s being a monument to the ecstasy of fake victimhood, but it’s more complicated than that. This woman didn’t develop a habit of blindly forging into the middle of the street on her own. Something had to happen to make that behavior seem acceptable. My guess is that she, like many of us, had spent a lot of time marooned in a crosswalk with cars hurtling by on both sides, and at some point just said, “Ah, to hell with it. If you’re not going to recognize the crosswalk, neither am I.”

I find myself thinking about this incident (and the 15 similar ones we all experience every time we get into the car) as the Hub undergoes its latest surge of concern for the Hobbesian nightmare that plays out daily on our roadways among drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. Over the past several months, a handful of brave souls have tried to do something to address the problem, to little avail. In June, a bill known as the Bicyclists’ Bill of Rights and Responsibilities—which calls for the state to clarify and enforce existing laws governing how cars and bikes act around one another—got its second reading before the state legislature’s public safety committee (the original measure had been vetoed by Muffy Healey late last year, just before her rightful banishment from state politics). City Councilor John Tobin’s ongoing program of distributing signs and stickers reading “SLOW DOWN BOSTON” has been derided for its tragic lack of a comma by this writer, and met by the following grammatically inventive rejoinder on a Globe message board: “Will John Tobin’s plan work? That depends how many of the signs he can fit up his sorry rearend for coming up such half-assed plan. Signs indeed.” And when, late this spring, Councilor Rob Consalvo proposed a “pace car” initiative that would ask residents to take a pledge never to drive above the speed limit, it won him a hailstorm of mockery from press and colleagues alike. Leading the charge was Herald columnist Peter Gelzinis, who accused the councilor of misunderstanding why things are the way they are out there. It’s not speeding that makes this place such a horror, Gelzinis wrote, but arrogance, stupidity, and our hideously labyrinthine roads.

No question those things play a role, but that explanation grossly oversimplifies the problem. The fault here lies not solely with bad drivers, but with bad drivers, bad pedestrians, and bad cyclists, all joined together in a disharmonious feedback loop, each convinced that their erratic and often illegal actions are completely justified, and that the others are to blame for the present situation. It’s quite an equilibrium we’ve established, and our continued failure to grasp the nature of it will doom even the best-intentioned efforts to pacify our savage streets—if, in fact, we’re truly interested in doing that to begin with.

Here’s the fatal flaw in the logic employed by the lady I nearly greased in Harvard Square, and by untold jaywalkers like her: Their actions, while meant to punish bad drivers, only end up radicalizing the good ones. After enough people step in front of your car without looking and then scowl at you for having the audacity to stop short to avoid killing them, even the most placid soul will start viewing pedestrians as nemeses. The same dynamic applies to bikers. They hate pedestrians for jaywalking (which is especially dangerous to cyclists who, in the absence of bike lanes, typically ride closer to the curb), so they’re less likely to respect crosswalks, and more likely to ride in the middle of the street, blocking traffic and angering drivers. The result is best summed up by this frequently witnessed montage: A cyclist dodges a pedestrian, nearly gets mowed down by a passing car, bellows at the driver to “share the road”…and then runs the next red light.

From that point on, it isn’t arrogance and stupidity that govern the roadways, but a self-reinforcing cycle of hatred and revenge. None of the groups will alter their behavior, because they see that as tantamount to apology, and, besides, they’d need to see their foes punished to the utmost before they’d begin to think about negotiating away the right to act like barbarians. Couple that with a host of other contributing factors—the smug self-regard of cyclists, who disdain drivers for poisoning and befattening the world; the pack mentality of pedestrians, who will instinctively follow each other into the paths of speeding cars; our apoplectic motorists, the third most enraged in the U.S., according to AutoVantage; the native Bostonian impatience shared by all three groups—and you’ve got a veritable goons’ rodeo on your hands. Brokering a lasting peace among these people would make the Oslo talks look like a church swap meet.

In 1999, Boston launched a 10-year plan to make its streets safer for those who get around on foot. The initiative included the well-intentioned “Walk This Way” campaign, which sought to educate pedestrians about how strolling into traffic is a bad idea by posting signs bearing mildly sarcastic slogans like “Feeling run down? You will if you cross this intersection at the wrong time, buster.” According to the city, the placards succeeded in reducing pedestrian accidents by 11 percent within the first year. (The stats tracked only the incidents that resulted in an ambulance call; no one here or anywhere else has devised an effective way to determine how many pedestrians we have at any given time, so true accident rates, and by extension trends, are impossible to establish.) But funding dried up in 2001, and the project petered out. More recently, starting in 2006 the city has been getting around to incrementally retiming the traffic signals and implementing what is known as “concurrent crossing.” In a nutshell, it works like this: When cars have a green light, walkers going in the same direction also have a walk signal. This is a marked improvement on the old system, in which pedestrians looking to cross the street had to hit the button, then wait a half-hour for all traffic to stop, then get bored and march into the street with 30 others mindlessly trailing, resulting in much shouting and carnage.

Unfortunately, none of this takes the necessary steps toward punishing rogue pedestrians, who face a penalty for jaywalking that right now stands at a whopping $1. And that kind of massive, permanent police crackdown—not just on bad pedestrians, but also on bad drivers and cyclists in equal measure—is the only thing that will restore sanity to our roadways. But it’s not going to happen, partly because it’s a widely held belief among local pols that cracking down on jaywalking would end in voters storming, looting, and burning City Hall, and partly because to actually pull it off would require more cops than we have, not just in Boston, but in the entire country.

That leaves as the only potential permanent fix a move that would require getting the legislature involved: Follow the lead of London and charge a toll for drivers entering the city during rush hour, then push through a state gas tax, and invest a chunk of the revenue from both in the T to help make it a more attractive mode of transport. That would cut down on traffic and make things easier for cyclists and pedestrians, while also turning getting across town into a less stressful, albeit costlier, proposition for drivers—who, politicians will note, would still scream like absolute banshees if such an idea were ever formally aired.

Which leads to the larger question of whether the bulk of Bostonians actually want things to change. Judging by the response to the bike bill and Tobin’s and Consalvo’s efforts, it seems the only thing we deplore more than the present chaos is any attempt to curb it. My suspicion is that, if given the choice, most of us would be reluctant to give up the righteous thrill of tormenting one another on the streets. After all, the unending series of petty conflicts and antagonisms that characterize every journey from one part of town to another is probably the only real opportunity for emotionally constipated New Englanders to emote in public. And if we’re looking to address that particular problem, we wouldn’t need stickers, laws, or better-timed lights. We’d need an exorcist.