Paul From Minneapolis

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

(Work In Progress)

Sunday morning, and a pleasant one it is in Minneapolis. A little damp early, but now the sun is breaking through and it’s chilly but a nice warm chilly, maybe 43. Hey, there’s a bank thermometer: 43! (I have a knack.) So I’m out for a drive, heading up the west side of Lake Calhoun. Slate blue, and shining black tree trunks with a few red leaves. Looks like we’re in for a swell November.

What’s this guy in front of me doing? Oh! He’s stopping. For a young mother in spandex with a baby in a stroller, set to go running and rolling on the lake path. The very essence of south Minneapolis: the mom, the baby, the spandex, the mandated crosswalk stopping…

Of course this isn’t a completely cost-free project time-wise.

The woman (an alert sort already waiting for our cars to pass, so there was little inherent danger, thank God) paused to make sure this gentleman was actually stopping. So I have to confess, and it galls me to admit it: there was a twinge of impatience. In me. Am I anti-spandex-mom-and-baby? No, goodness, no. The entire exchange took all of thirteen seconds, from slow-down to acceleration. With maybe – again, I quantify quickly, who knows why, I always have – six of those seconds taken up with the woman waiting before walking.

And I suppose from our point of view, we stopped drivers whether voluntary or no, maybe tack on four seconds as we got ourselves back up to speed. I forgot that.

So at most, it cost me and this “No War On Iraq” fellow (around here they sell cars with the sticker already affixed) maybe 17 seconds. For a total of 34 seconds lost, there being the two of us. What could be more trivial.

And consider the gains from the other side. Had mother been forced to wait for us to pass (we were the only two cars in sight), that might have taken up as many as four seconds! So now she only had to wait six seconds to walk, instead of four! See?

So I can’t see that it matters, the increased pollution that will result from 34 seconds of idling cars. And the quarter minute of lost time for each of us.

Still, I had to chuckle. Because by luck when the citizen ahead of me hit full stop, his car’s rear end came to rest just far enough back that I was utterly unable to make the turn I had intended into a parking lot (it’s a shortcut I know). A matter of inches. Funny, really, when you think about it. Not the guy’s fault at all, of course, and had he moved closer than 15 feet to the cross-walking Madonna with child, they might have been startled. That would be bad.

So it was a relaxed and mellow Sunday and I continued on my way, not even becoming angry when I just missed the long, long light at the other end of my timesaver secret path. Oh well! Look, it’s 44 now!

(It’s about a seventeen-minute light, so that gets added on I could argue, if I wanted to, which I don’t.)

After reflection, I reconciled the episode in my mind with a few overlapping conclusions and observations offered for peer review. As ever, further research is required:

- Pedestrian crosswalk laws can be a fine idea.

- They seem never to be followed universally, and unless they are, any gain in pedestrian security is perhaps less than it might be.

- In fact St. Paul’s dominant quaint commercial strip features harsh fluorescent sandwich board crosswalk law reminders in the middle of the street and is a time bomb. Were the stop-always-for-all-pedestrian laws actually obeyed, the result would be a flood of career-destroying rear-enders. Or at least a lot more local pollution. That seems guaranteed. The neighborhood would be characterized by idling Volvos. Granted, on the plus side, there would be the extra time afforded bystanders to take in the idea that Peace Is Patriotic.

- So are the laws bad ideas? Good ideas? I’m not sure. One would need to tote up the direct and indirect ramifications of every such situation.

- Or at least think about it.

- Which I’m not convinced the citizen activists and city planners who promote these laws necessarily do.

Am I willing to go all the way and posit that the main benefit and intent of these laws is in fact the mandated opportunity it gives us all to genuflect toward pedestrians? Like we would bow to a Cardinal in a hallway at the Vatican, especially if we’re just some schmuck, which I am?

Maybe not. And the guy in front of me, he was just following the law. A law that not everybody follows, but he chose to. Meaning that we both followed another law, a law that is always followed no matter what. It’s that one about Unintended Consequences. (I’ll leave it to you to multiply 34 seconds times 40,000; reasoning available upon request.)

By the way, mom was already in great shape, so I’m not sure she even needed to go running. But of course that’s her decision. The baby was like me, he just had to go along with whatever.