Here’s a scenario: You’re a cyclist, heading south on Harrison and you’ve just pulled up to the four-way intersection at 20th and Harrison. You intend to turn left. On your right, a car pulls up at the stop sign heading east on 20th, with its left hand turn signal blinking, clearly signaling its intent to turn left and head north of Harrison. On the northeastern corner, to your left, an elderly woman stands on the curb, waiting to cross Harrison. Another car, heading north, pulls up at the stop sign opposite you. What should happen next? Let’s explore some scenarios:
- You proceed into the intersection to make your left-hand turn because you got there first. Well, actually the pedestrian was waiting when you got there, but, you reason, it’ll take less time for you to go first, because you’re cycling and the pedestrian is an elderly woman and they take forever. The other cars? They kind of got there after you. You’re sure about this. And anyway, you are way more nimble than the cars and have already started making your turn. So they better wait.
- The car to your right waves you through impatiently. You know what they’re thinking. It’s what you think when you drive. They’re thinking, I’m in a car and if that cyclist is forced to slow down, they’ll lose momentum and, Christ, it’ll take forever for traffic resume its normal speed. You wonder if the impatient car driver has seen the elderly woman, but because you don’t want to make waves (and also because you want to go first…who doesn’t?) you go. The guy/gal driving the car will make his/her left-hand turn before the elderly woman could hope to be halfway across the intersection. So off you go. Hope it all works out, guys, you think as you sail gaily through your left-hand turn, your speed preserved by the generosity of the impatient car driver. The other car heading north? He was totally last and thus doesn’t really figure into the pattern schematic at all.
- You look to your left and smile at the elderly woman. She has the right of way. She arrived at the intersection first, before any of you and besides… she’s a pedestrian. You smile so that she knows that you know she’s there. Encouraged by your smile, she steps off the curb onto the crosswalk and starts walking. (Your tires, by the way, are not in the crosswalk. They are behind the yellow line. Because that you’re that kind of a person. Also, she’s a sweet little old lady and your heart goes out to her.) You look at the other cars to make sure they get whats going on- that there’s an elderly woman in the crosswalk which means that everyone needs to chill out and hunker down until she’s done. Perhaps you notice that the driver on your right, who wants to turn left, is inching into the intersection. Oh my god, you think. How rude. You catch the eye of the driver and glare at them meanly. This works. They stop moving. Your sweet babushka completes her journey. And then…you wait some more. It’s the inconsiderate driver‘s turn. But look what this driver is doing! Irritably waving YOU through! He’s magnanimously “giving” you “his” turn. What are you doing, you silly car driver, you think. Don’t you know? It’s not “your” turn.
It’s really not his turn, although he should be the next one to move.) It isn’t anybody’s turn, really. When dealing with the right-of-way at intersections, or stop lights or anywhere, the notion that turns belong to an individual- and can thus be exercised based on that individual’s perceived needs- I got to get to where I’m going- is false. The turn belongs to no one. The movement we call a “turn”, which is intended to create space for other commuters to move, is a right held in common by all of us. It can’t be given away. And it certainly shouldn’t be taken.
Wondering what happened to the elderly woman? She was most likely stranded on the northeastern corner until all traffic had cleared. Why? You took her turn. And then car that wanted to turn left took advantage of the scofflaw culture of the intersection and took her turn, too. The other car? Maybe he waited. But maybe she waved him through. Better her turn than her life. Of the 28 fatal collisions in San Francisco in 2011, 17 of the collisions killed pedestrians. That’s a whopping 60% of an already dismaying statistic. 26.1 percent is the ten-year rate of pedestrian fatalities in San Francisco from between 2000 to 2009.
One fourth of all injury collisions in San Francisco involve pedestrians and cars. Sadly, there’s been an increase in pedestrian and bike collisions, too. One would think that the non-motorized types would stick together, but no. There were 31 bicycle/pedestrian collisions in 2011. That’s only 4% of all collisions involving a pedestrian. But last year, two of those collisions killed people, both of whom were in an intersection. The majority of all collisions happen because of a failure to observe California Vehicle Code 21950(A) which tells us we must the right-of-way to pedestrians. Failure to yield- the theft of someone's right-of-way- is why cars and bikes crash into each other and pedestrians on a regular basis in San Francisco.
What the technical writers who drafted the California Vehicle Code call a “turn” should be understood for what it really is. A turn is a movement that is dependent on and predictive of other’s movements. A turn envisions the spatial area of the intersection as a “common”- a space that’s equally available to all. Just as in a symphony, one movement is prelude to the rest. When you let impatient car-drivers “give you” their turn, or, when you take the turn of pedestrians, you throw off the careful orchestration of the great meeting place of all commuters: the intersection. Our movements might be formalized by the California Vehicle Code, but I like to think they came from something deeper, something older: the instinct of altruism and consideration. In 2011, there were 3,139 car/pedestrian/bicycle injury collisions in San Francisco, mostly at intersections, and mostly because the turn that people took, or gave away, was not their own. The pattern was upset.
“Turns” are not private property. They are transient rights endowed on us temporarily by virtue of our modal identity and the rate at which we move, on foot, on bike or in a car. Depending on what travel mode we happen to be in, our rights shift and change. They are relational. They depend on an understanding of other’s relationship to us to attain specificity and meaning.
Everyone is multi-modal in San Francisco. Some modes dominate, certainly. Most people enter, navigate and exit San Francisco in a car. But the mode share of folks of bikes is increasing. And the number of people choosing to walk is also changing. What gets lost in the statistics on mode share is the fact that San Franciscans pick and choose between them, often several times in one day. It’s isn’t accurate for me to call myself a cyclist, for instance. I make three to four trips a week in a car to fetch my elderly mother-in-law from senior centers and college campuses located throughout the city. After doing this, I get on my bike to go to the gym, or perhaps to go grocery shopping. Later that night, a friend and I might go for a nice long walk in the Mission District. And at least three or four time a week, I take BART.
I am large, I contain multitudes, as Walt Whitman said. I am multi-modal. And every intersection that belongs to me belongs to you. In one day, I confront within myself the impatient car-driver, the judgmental cyclist, the threatened pedestrian and the weary BART commuter. I am what and how I travel, several times a week, in bewildering array.
Are you a pedestrian? A cyclist? A car driver? When did you take on that identity? And when you arrive at that magical and charged public space that we call an “intersection”, what will you do while you’re there? Will you smile and make eye contact with others? Will you let them know that you know they’re there and that you intend to create and hold space for them? Or will you stay trapped within a fixed identity?
Do you know who you are at all times, as you make your way through intersection after intersection?