Where is the Love?

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I have an established running route from my house. Exactly 5K in length (I’ve measured it with an app on my phone), it takes me out through the neighborhoods near downtown and loops back around to my doorstep. When I’m health-conscious, I jog this route two or three times a week. Too often, I go several weeks without running, until I find a sliver of motivation to overcome my laziness and get out there again.

As tough as running is, I feel good about most of my route. I start by passing the houses along my street, waving at neighbors who are outside and watching the trees change with the seasons. I head south on 14th Street past North Salem High School, and if it’s lunchtime or late afternoon, I weave my way through crowds of teenagers.

But after I pass the school, my shoulders tighten, my teeth clench and my eyes narrow. It’s because I know what’s ahead when I reach Center Street: the crosswalk.

A set of white parallel lines painted across Center at 14th clearly marks the spot where traffic must stop and wait for pedestrians (ORS 811.028). On good days, the oncoming drivers brake immediately. But most days I stand on the sidewalk, watching as one, two, three, sometimes four or five vehicles pass me, oblivious to my desire to cross.

My intent is clear. I get right up to the crosswalk, sometimes enter the edge of it, and look directly at every driver that passes. Sometimes I get so angry that I start yelling: “This is a crosswalk! I’m trying to cross!” If they still don’t stop, I resort to waving and pointing toward the painted lines. One driver I did this to recently slammed on his brakes, but waved back — and it wasn’t friendly.

I shook my head, as I always do, and continued on my run, righteous indignation on my side.

***

I’ve often glided past pedestrians waiting at that same crosswalk. I’ve been that driver who doesn’t stop while someone waits patiently to walk.

Most of those times, I didn’t see the pedestrian soon enough — I didn’t feel comfortable slamming on my brakes with cars right behind me, or I knew that if I tried to stop I’d end up halfway into the crosswalk. A handful of times, I saw a pedestrian start nearing a crosswalk, but I was in a hurry, not willing to wait to find out whether they intended to cross or planned to continue down the sidewalk.

Every time this happened, I winced and looked straight ahead, avoiding eye contact with the pedestrian. If my husband was in the car with me, I muttered, “I didn’t see them in time.”

But if I was honest with myself, I could typically pinpoint specific reasons why this happened: I was fiddling with my car radio, I was speeding a bit, I was engaging with my kids in the backseat. In other words, I wasn’t paying close enough attention to the road.

Maybe if I’d been more present, more aware of what happened both on and near the street, things would have been different.

***

A few years ago, I pedaled my bike through the Capitol Mall, headed toward home after an afternoon playing with my toddler at Riverfront Park. He sat in the bike trailer I towed behind me, looking out at the world and asking questions about everything he saw or heard.

I was pregnant with my second child, and between my growing belly, my heavy cruiser bike and the trailer with my son inside, I wasn’t moving quickly. But heading east down Chemeketa Street, atop the sharrows that told drivers I was allowed to use the full lane, I felt confident, happy even, that at least I had the benefit of a well-marked, bicycle-friendly thoroughfare to get me from downtown to the safer streets of my neighborhood.

A car crept up behind me, and I pushed my pedals as hard as I could. I always feel guilty whenever I’m holding up a vehicle, especially when I’m towing the trailer, so I typically go out of my way to make sure I’m not blocking traffic. But with cars parked along the side of the road, I was forced to continue plowing ahead down the middle of the lane.

Then I heard it, a voice from the car: “Get off the road!” We were almost to the light on 12th Street, and the driver whipped his car around me to turn right, leaving me huffing and puffing behind.

I looked down at the road, at the sharrow’s chevrons pointing my way. My anger boiled, but so did my fear and my sense of being violated. My heart pounded, and what had been a pleasant afternoon with my son turned into me stewing all the way home, no longer able to enjoy the sun warming my skin, or my son’s queries from behind me.

***

How did it come to this, an us-versus-them battle of who has the right to use our streets? It’s worse than people simply not understanding the traffic laws — although that certainly contributes to the problem. Drivers and cyclists/pedestrians actively loathe each other, enough to where some even think it’s acceptable to confront, to yell, to insult.

If we’re going to make progress on this issue, we’ve got to move from confrontation to open discussion, and even further — to compassion. Another small example: Before I started riding my bike, I used to wonder with irritation why I’d see cyclists riding out in the traffic lane when there was a perfectly good bike lane right next to them. When I finally hopped on my own bicycle, I found that often the bike lanes were filled with road debris, making them unsafe to ride in; suddenly, the cyclists’ actions made sense. Simple things like this — considering the other person’s perspective instead of jumping to conclusions — can melt our anger and nudge us toward understanding.

It may not seem like it, but we’re all on the same side of this battle. My friend David Fox, the cyclist who posted the homemade traffic signs downtown in attempt to educate hostile drivers, talks about this frequently. Drivers don’t want cyclists blocking them on the roads and slowing them down. Cyclists, believe it or not, generally don’t want that, either. They’d rather not be out in the roadway with fast traffic; they want to ride wherever it’s safest. Cyclists and pedestrians wouldn’t need to conflict so often with drivers if Salem had a better infrastructure to support them — more bike lanes, more sidewalks, better-marked crosswalks, bike boulevards (bicycle-first roadways in low-traffic neighborhoods). And fewer people would feel the need to drive everywhere if riding a bike or walking was safer.

These improvements are not just luxuries for cyclists and pedestrians. They help drivers, too.

***

A few weeks ago, I headed out of my favorite coffee shop downtown and walked back toward my parked car. I waited at a corner for the walking man to illuminate and show me it was my turn to cross the street.

When it appeared, I entered the crosswalk for a few steps before seeing a driver, oblivious to me at first, start to turn from a cross street. I stopped, and so did she. We stared at each other. My anger bubbled again, and I continued walking, staring hard at the corner ahead of me.

When I was back on the sidewalk, I heard her car slow behind me, and I turned to see her window rolled down. I tensed.

“I’m sorry,” she said, sincerely, a look of regret coloring her face. A simple courtesy acknowledging her mistake. I softened my frown and gave her a wave before she drove on.

More of us need to be like her.

Salem Is editor Sarah Evans has been walking, running and biking in and near downtown for 10 years and, despite some of the dangers, she still cites her neighborhood’s walk- and ride-ability as one of its best features.