One brief near-encounter with a clueless driver spoke volumes to me about what needs to change if downtown Salem -- and the rest of this town -- is to become friendly to walkers and cyclists.
I'd left my Tai Chi class at Pacific Martial Arts, above Court Street's Dairy Lunch restaurant. Heading to my parked car, I stepped onto the clearly-marked mid-block crossing that connects two alleys.
Court Street has three lanes.
Stepping into the crosswalk near the left side of the street, I had to stop suddenly when a driver zoomed by close to me, heedless of the fact that he/she should stop for pedestrian me.
After that car went by, I resumed my crosswalk journey.
I'd gotten to middle lane territory when I glanced to my left and saw a fast-moving car in the far lane. The driver didn't slow down. I'm pretty sure he didn't even see me. His eyes were focused straight ahead. I stood still in the clearly marked crosswalk as he sped by, missing me by a few feet.
I raised both my hands in a WTF! gesture, more for the benefit of other drivers approaching me than the jerk who was now turning left onto Commercial Street.
What's the big deal? some people who read this might be thinking. Well, this struck me as one of those "universe in a grain of sand" moments. It said a lot about what the Salem Breakfast on Bikes blogger likes to call the culture of Hydraulic Autoism in Salem.
These are some of its characteristics, according to the above-linked post:
- Modern analytics based on "Level of Service" count delay, congestion, meanders, anything that impedes powerful free-flow for cars, as problems or noise to be engineered out of the system.
- People on foot are "pedestrian impedance"; they are noise in the system that cause delay. Other non-car users of the road are also noise. The roads aren't true public space for everybody, but are primarily for cars and their drivers.
- Road "design speed" should be much higher than posted speed limits. It should be possible for drivers to exceed posted speeds routinely and safely. Not to do this is to engineer a "dangerous" road. Roads should "forgive" a range of driver error. (Consistent with theories of pedestrian impedance, roads do not need to forgive a range of errors by people on foot or on bike.)
Salem is scary for people walking and on bikes because our streets have been purposely designed to make them dangerous for anyone not driving a vehicle.
Past urban design mistakes continue to be made by the City of Salem Public Works Department, which puts very little effort into building state-of-the-art bike paths and multi-use paths.
Some white lines painted on the pavement aren't nearly enough. Nor are green lines. This photo on a Breakfast on Bikes post about "autoist spin" shows the dreadful newly-built intersection of Glen Creek and Wallace Roads in West Salem.
Would a parent feel that it is safe to let their eight year old child bike down this road? Would an 80 year old out for some exercise feel that it is safe to bike to the Starbucks in the Roth's shopping center?
A "no" answer, which is almost certain, shows that Salem is failing at making our streets live up to the "8-80" standard that many other more with-it cities are actively implementing.
Too often, people in Salem feel that pedestrians are to blame when a driver hits them. That's bullshit. The blame almost always rests on people driving vehicles, and on the City officials who allow streets to be built in an unsafe fashion for walkers and cyclists.
Today I was wearing a red shirt. I was slowly walking across a well-marked mid-block crosswalk. But two drivers failed to stop or even slow down after I'd entered the crosswalk.
By contrast, whenever I walk around Portland, I'm struck by how different drivers behave there. I'll be standing on the sidewalk, wary of crossing the street because I'm used to how people in Salem drive. A car will stop before I've even stepped off the curb. The driver will give a friendly wave, inviting me to cross.
Over on my Strange Up Salem Facebook page, frequently when I praise something about Portland I'll get comments along the lines of "We don't want Salem to be like Portland!"
I always think, Huh, what are you talking about? Actually we want Salem to keep on being Salem, while embracing the best practices of other cities that make them more vibrant and livable than Salem is now.
I look forward to the day when someone, anyone, a young child or an elderly adult, steps into a Salem street crossing and drivers promptly and eagerly stop, maybe even acknowledging the person on foot with a friendly gesture.
And when that person also is able to ride a bicycle all over town on family-friendly bike paths, with many miles of them dedicated solely to walkers and cyclists. Such is the goal of Salem Bike Boulevard Advocates.
(May they thrive and prosper.)