ON THE AVENUES: Afoot in NA with the 69% solution.
A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.
All our sidewalks might be rebuilt, and even the occasional bike lane striped, but unless New Albany is prepared to classify systemic discrimination against the urban zone’s persecuted walkers and bicyclists as part and parcel of a fully funded enforcement mechanism, under the auspices of a human rights commission, things won’t get any better around here.
Okay, I’m exaggerating, though only slightly.
The older I get, the greater the imperative to redress the ridiculous societal imbalance between man and machine. We might as well commence the social engineering right here in the Open Air Museum, where minuscule comprehension levels guarantee a clean slate.
Of course, we’re all familiar with the array of venom spewed by motorists with respect to their fellow motorists, all of whom might be conveniently grouped into an omnibus category termed Innate Incompetence Compounded by Willful Distraction, or minus the obscenities: “Who taught you to drive, anyway?’
Probably no one, and also everyone.
But if you think it’s bad when both of you are in your armor-clad Hummers cursing, shaking fists and flashing middle fingers, then I recommend attempting a pleasurable stroll or casual bike ride. I’m confident you’ll soon echo my own sentiments, as freely borrowed from Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip and modified, hometown-style:
“I love cars. It’s drivers I hate.”
While unlikely, it is conceivable that a handful of local drivers well into their eighties might recall the admonition to look both ways before entering any intersection. However, fifty years of New Albany’s one-way downtown street grid has ensured that drivers generally look only in the direction of oncoming traffic, and seldom the other way, where a pedestrian just might be interested in crossing the street.
There’s also the quaint institution of those crosswalk guides painted on the street, with the obvious intent of connecting one sidewalk to the next, so as to assist pedestrians in navigating in a straight line. In theory, drivers are compelled to heed the stop sign short of these areas, without blocking pedestrian crossways.
I tested this theory yesterday while out walking, and on five separate occasions when I reached the corner at the same time as a car arrived at the stop sign (i.e., where the auto is supposed to stop), each time, without exception, the driver (a) did not look to see if anyone was there, and then (b) straddled the crosswalk line, easing as far out into the street as possible, presumably to save precious seconds in route to the dollar menu at Rally’s, where he or she could enter the drive-thru lane without moving a muscle (if any exist), before devouring the contents of the sack while in the very act of driving to the next fast food joint for dessert, then tossing all the wrappings onto the street, thus ensuring that my judgment of my fellow Americans remains fully enabled.
Fat, dumb and fundamentalist is no way to go through life, and being an obnoxious, crappy driver makes it far, far worse.
When I was a boy, Georgetown truly was the countryside. The amenities – store, café, barber shop, school – were there, roughly two miles away, and so naturally we always drove to get to them. By contrast, we generally walked down to the barn and back to feed the cows.
Not everyone in our extended rural neighborhood had an automobile. Roughly a half-mile away, in the direction of Lanesville, was a collection of shacks inhabited by a group of the less well off. They were kinfolk, and yet the word “family” doesn’t quite describe the arrangement. Among them were two or three brothers, their sister, a brother-in-law, and perhaps other women, coming and going at various times.
There were plenty of cars parked on their property, the main problem being that these jalopies tended not to work. It was closer to Georgetown than Lanesville, but in those days the former was bone dry Baptist and about as humorless, while the latter remained wonderfully Catholic, with a handful of taverns for liquid grocery shopping. When it came time, they’d head south on foot.
Wine duly obtained, they would start the homeward trudge, although famously, there were those times when they’d have to turn around and stumble back to Lanesville for more fuel, then try again, before ending the day asleep in one of the intervening cornfields.
If we had cars to drive, we drove everywhere, and yes, that’s the American way and all that, but it’s just that driving never was something I genuinely enjoyed doing. It was a job, not an adventure. As a typically ignorant and parochial American in the sticks, I could not begin to discern any conceivable alternative, at least until I was able to travel, and then finally, after a few years of living and roaming, I began to know myself better.
Given my father’s proclivities for nature and the outdoors, it was perhaps inevitable that I would develop an interest in urban life, and so I did. Traveling to Europe to experience the continent’s cities, revelations were quick in coming: One needn’t drive to the amenities when the amenities were nearby, when walking or bicycling would suffice, and where there were public transport options to provide a reliable and relatively inexpensive mobility solution.
During more than 30 trips to Europe over a period of a quarter century, I’ve rented a car exactly once. To be sure, my posterior has been placed in passenger cars quite a few times, and there have been taxis aplenty for shorter distances, and yet these account for a very small percentage of the total when it comes to how I’ve gotten around. After all this time, my preference remains walking, cycling, or whichever trains, trams or busses exist in a particular place.
Back here in downtown New Albany, we’ve embarked upon a great and surely futile debate about parking spaces. I use the word “futile” because the unquestioned assumption currently being heard from virtually every participant in the discussion is that if typical American customers are forced to walk more than an urban block to reach a destination, they’ll leave in disgust and loathing, never to return.
Well, perhaps New Albany should post way-finding signs to help the clueless locate Veteran’s Parkway, to experience the orgasmic thrill of the cookie-cutter.
While there may be a grain of truth to it as pertains to those lost causes enamored of hopping in their gas guzzlers for a quick cruise to the foot of a driveway to claim their snail mail, it strikes me as yet another example of older folks utterly failing to understand a dawning age, and the beauty of this new way of thinking about mobility is that it’s both old and proven.
The city was built for walking, and even if we’ve spent decades deconstructing the grid, it’s never too late to start all over again. This country boy managed to learn better. You can, too.