In Seattle, we passed a roads and bridges levy that will pour $365 million into fixing streets, building bike paths, and making the world safe for pedestrians. Multibillion-dollar decisions loom for the Highway 520 floating bridge, the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and regional transportation. Washington is even redesigning its driver's licenses for "security" purposes.
But no one seems to be addressing the real transportation problem around here, which is the culture of transportation. People, it's a ground war out there.
Cyclists hate drivers. Drivers hate bikers. Pedestrians are getting squashed. Jaywalkers proliferate. And many drivers are simply insane.
There are a number of factors at play. Gas is more than $3 a gallon, so drivers leave the pump pissed. Commutes are lengthening and shortcuts are disappearing. Cyclists are more numerous and often more aggressive – messengers and swarming cycling clubs were not encountered in the past. Pedestrians are breaking the rules: Once, Seattleites waited their turn on the curb for the light to change; today, many feel free to saunter in front of your car without looking. Some even seem intent on throwing themselves under your wheels.
Believe it or not, what we have in Seattle is a lack of consensus. This time it's about how to treat each other as we move around.
It gets worse. Transportation is not only expensive and problematic, it is now morally charged.
Pedestrians don't just walk to work. They are foot soldiers in the war against obesity and suburbia.
Cyclists don't just whiz on by, they are the Chosen People to save us from Global Warming and Planetary Annihilation.
Auto drivers think they own the roads and are often righteous about their wheels. Cars are mobile mirrors on which we project our sense of power and identity, not to mention a kind of plumage that sends signals in breeding season.
A bike isn't a bike, a crosswalk isn't a crosswalk, a car isn't a car. We're zipping around town in political statements. Movement itself has become protest, but much less fun than in 1999 at WTO.
On top of it all, we have a clash of cultures.
In olden times, Seattleites didn't jaywalk and drove with a passive-aggressive politeness and a kind of cluelessness that was sometimes charming, often annoying, but rarely posed a danger. During my long years of commuting on the 520 bridge, I once saw two drivers, headed in opposite directions, stop and chat with each other while traffic backed up behind them. It was a Mayberry moment.
But stress, crowding, and lots of new drivers from California and back East have changed the mix. Maybe it's also generational. Now you get a Darwinian selfishness on the road that is undoubtedly exacerbated by the Grand Theft Auto generation.
You certainly see that among many cyclists, whose drive for fitness causes them to push themselves to the limit, and whose lust for speed lets them break all rules. Walking around Seward Park, many bikers are too busy pumping away to give you any "on your left" warnings as they come up behind you. I fear they'll snag one of my kidneys as they go by, like a train hooking a mail sack.
So it's aggressive meets clueless. It's righteous meets desperate. Those are fatal combinations.
You can learn to survive and do well in a hyper-aggressive driving culture, like New York or California; and you can live with clueless if you've got time and patience. I once knew a man from Eastern Washington who slowed down for every green light to be sure he would never run a red one. Driving across town was a slooow process, but heck, no one was in a hurry.
But mix them together and you have anarchy.
Some of that shows up in selfish dog-eat-dogism. But it also generates fear, which in turn produces tentativeness and an ill-placed "please don't hurt me" kind of courtesy that makes things worse.
One manifestation is what my wife calls "aggressive politeness." That's the gal with the right of way who waves you to turn in front of her. Or the driver who is too nice – or scared – to pass a cyclist. Or the pedestrian who stops in the middle of the street to let your car by. Ever get stuck at a four-way stop where everyone is trying to let the other guy go first? It often resolves itself when everyone finally lurches into the intersection at once. It's as if the very idea of "right of way" is too classist for Seattle sensibilities.
There are two ways out, as I see it. And these big transportation projects offer an opportunity.
One is a kind of metro-wide driving summit to reach agreement on what our transportation culture will be.
No, I'm not talking about a meeting of electeds and policy wonks. If we could get drivers, bikers, and pedestrians into one room – maybe they could arrive by bus to avoid a riot – we could work out some important cultural details.
A question might be: Do we jaywalk or not? Jaywalking can work if everyone agrees on the rules. In New York, jaywalkers are smart. Here, many are stupid – they wouldn't last a day in Manhattan before being flattened. So is dense, urban Seattle a jaywalking city, and if so, will someone please teach us how? Or do we try and hold the tide against jaywalking, to stick to the old standard that gained us our reputation of niceness? Let's reach agreement.
The summit would work out stuff that isn't in the manuals. For example, what's our attitude toward the police? In some driving cultures, Italy for example, drivers warn each other about speed traps and roadblocks. Such understandings build a sense of libertarian community, if that isn't a contradiction. In other driving cultures, motorists are eager tattletales, squealing on scofflaws at every opportunity. Which are we?
Second, I think it would be wise policy to shave off a few hundred million dollars in transportation spending for bike trails, crosswalks, and freeways, and send everyone to a remedial class on rules of the road. I don't remember everything from driver's ed in 1970. I know I am not alone.
But that refresher class shouldn't just be about driving. It should cover the whole gamut of transportation modes. How do you cross a street and survive? How many cyclists can ride abreast on Lake Washington Boulevard? Is a Segway a pedestrian, car, or bike? Why do so many skateboarders look so old? Why is it that boomers keep killing themselves on Harleys? Or, like a question posed by Borat, how fast do you have to go to kill a (fill in the blank)?
We need answers, and we shouldn't spend a dime more on transportation until we get them.