Sunday, April 15, 2012

Politics of Power on the Streets... Pedestrians, Bicyclists, Drivers, oh My!

Here in Shanghai, it's survival of the biggest. The pedestrian is the lowest method of travel on the transportation totem pole.

If you are walking on the streets, you have to look out for:

*bicycles that cut off your path,
*mopeds that swerve around you,
*gas scooters that spook from behind,
*taxis that swerve around you in a crosswalk,
*cars that are backing out of parking spots without yielding,
*cars that are parked on the sidewalk,
*trucks that drive through one way streets the wrong way,
*black trucks that drive at night without any headlights
*and the list continues without a definitive end...

It truly is an amazing sight to see; the number of people that move around this city in so many different ways, without causing [too many] accidents.

After eight months of walking, I finally decided to buy a bicycle.


WOW! What a difference it has made to my life. Immediately, my purchase came in handy for the eighth grade biking trip to the sea. The 24 mile roundtrip journey was definitely a fun way to break in my new bike. Although it was scary trying to make sure 30 students stayed safe while we dodged the normal obstacles plus food trucks, puddles, mud traps and overflowing canal waters!









Even more exciting, my food shopping trips have become easier to manage, and I find a strange delight in ringing my bell, to obnoxiously warn pedestrians that they are in my way! I suppose the movement up the transportation totem pole has gone to my head. ;)

I really enjoy biking because it gives me the same freedom I had when I was a kid, before I drove. The same freedom to go where I needed to go without having to ask my mom and dad for a ride. I loved riding around for hours in the neighborhood with friends, trying to get "lost" (which never happened, thanks to organized street planning of modern suburbia!).

With the advent of obesity, technology, and just plain 'ol "growing up", the stereotype of an adult bicycle rider in Long Island generally falls into two categories; for the super fit or the super poor. Basically many people think that if one rides a bicycle, they better be dressed like Lance Armstrong with a super duper fancy bike, or only riding because they're too poor to have a car/car insurance/money for gas/license, etc. etc. That goes for the people who ride buses too. Only poor people ride the bus. Duh.

So that means I fall into the category of "weirdo"; a person who likes to ride their bike because they like to ride a bike. A person who would prefer to ride their bike on a beautiful day than drive. As an adult, I've continued my "weirdo" ways, biking in NYC on the bike paths and in Central Park, and in Madrid in Casa de Campo and Parque Retiro.

However, I HATE riding my bike in my hometown because people honk their horns at me (sorry I'm not your mamacita), drivers are reckless (you almost took out my leg!), and the streets are not safely designed to accommodate bike traffic.

Case in point: The last time I rode my bike in my hometown was last June, on my way to get my physical check done for my Chinese visa at my family physician. Coming off the experience of my spring trip in Madrid, I had romantic notions of what it was like to ride my bike everywhere.

Then the harsh reality of Hempstead Turnpike hit (almost literally) when the driver of a minivan turning off of Gardiner's Avenue onto Hempstead Trpk decided to speed up to make the light, instead of slowing down to avoid hitting me! Luckily, I moved out of the way fast enough!

Crossing Hempstead Turnpike is scary no matter what time of day or circumstance. Drivers are distracted behind the wheel, they speed, and the walking light is so short that it doesn't give people an adequate amount of time to get across 8 lanes of traffic (4 lanes going westbound, 4 lanes going eastbound, with turning light lanes also adding to the confusion).

Sadly, another young person has been struck and killed this month on the same street.

How many people need to die before something is done? In response to this latest accident, the Hempstead Town Board voted to adopt a comprehensive "Complete Streets" policy to develop safe roadways for all who utilize them including motorists, pedestrians, bicyclists, children and senior citizens. The article doesn't explicitly state what a "complete street" entails, or when this project would be started and completed, or even if local citizens would have a say in how they want to be protected. I think a great solution would be for the local government to build walkway bridges at major intersections (such as Gardiner's Avenue and Hempstead Trnpk) and put up barriers so people would be forced to use the overpass. It would stop people from jaywalking, senior citizens and children can walk at their comfortable pace to get across, and everyone would be protected from speeding cars.

Similar systems are in place in the most populated places of Shanghai (People's Square, West Nanjing Lu, etc), and it works well; protecting all of the millions of people driving, motoring, biking and walking. If our local governments claim to not have the money to build such infrastructure, they can sell out the project like everything else, and have private corporations sponsor the bridge/plaster their advertisements all over it. Plus, it could provide jobs to unemployed people AND save lives! A win-win all around!

However, the same people who blame the pedestrians will say that an overpass is unnecessary, and ugly, and will not be a cost-effective way to protect the people. Maybe they'll suggest to put up cameras to catch speeders and red light runners (which is not accurate or effective 100% of the time). Maybe they'll suggest to put more bullying police officers on patrol to catch the bad-boy jaywalkers (hey, more revenue for the county, state, etc). Maybe they'll do everything in their power to continue the might of the driver, and the slight of the bicyclists and pedestrians. One thing is for sure; walking and biking are healthy for our communities, bodies and environment.

We should be creating communities where everyone is equally allowed to move around in a safe manner, free from fear and intimidation. My town was built on small-town ideals and the once progressive idea of the Levittown "Green"; the place to go for neighborhood gossip, shopping and eating. This nostaglic image has been kicked to the curb for the corporate commercialism of McDonald's, Old Navy and BJs price club. Who has time for biking when one has to bring home a 40 gallon jug of ketchup and 10 pounds of frozen chicken?

So who should have more power and rights? The trucks? The cars? The motorcycles? The bicycles? The pedestrians? Clearly, not every city agrees on the same answer. However, I hope we as humans can strive to move with patience, and be more cautious to the people traveling around us.

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