secret_history (2005-46)

Curse of the Red Hand

Don’t-walk signals leave law-abiding Knoxvillians contemplating the curb

by Jack Neely

Years ago, when they first substituted the flashing red hand for the old DONT WALK signs, I was proud to see it. It’s the Red Hand of O’Neill. The crimson right hand, severed at the wrist, is one of the ancient symbols of the Irish side of my family. It’s a gruesome story; you don’t want to hear it.

But the charm of seeing my bloody ancestors waving at me all over town has worn off. I see the electric Red Hand all too much. I’ve learned to ignore it. If you obeyed every Red Hand in downtown Knoxville, you’d move around town very slowly, and would do a lot of standing around looking like a sap.

On trips to other cities recently, I’ve noticed something funny. First in Pittsburgh, with some time to kill, I did some urban hiking. I circumnavigated the downtown Pittsburgh area, enjoying the weird old Gothic architecture of that city. After a while I noticed I was feeling a little inebriated. It wasn’t the Iron City I’d had with breakfast; it was more like a runner’s high. It turned out I was actually getting an aerobic workout. I was crossing streets legally, as people tend to do up North; I was crossing dozens of them one after the other, and I wasn’t ever stopping long enough to catch a breath.

Though downtown Pittsburgh is a busy place, with corporate headquarters and big stores and theaters and restaurants and lots of cars with important people driving to important places, it’s much quicker and easier to walk around there than it is to walk around downtown Knoxville.

Here’s their secret; their lights change quicker. I never had to wait at any intersection for more than a few seconds. For a pedestrian in downtown Pittsburgh, 20 seconds is a long wait. The red and green lights, and the corresponding walk/don’t-walk signs changed much more rapidly than those of downtown Knoxville.

I noticed the same thing last year in New York. I tried to find one major avenue that was as time-consuming to cross as Gay Street. I failed. Each one—Madison Avenue, Lexington, even Broadway—is a quicker street to cross. Legally, at least.

Crossing cycles in downtown Knoxville are solemnly slow. The light to cross Gay Street right in front of our building is on a 95-second cycle. Of that, the walk sign is on for only about six seconds. So the wait to cross Gay Street legally there can be as long as one minute and 29 seconds; that’s twice as long as it takes to cross any major artery in Manhattan.

Our light is actually one of the swifter Gay Street crossings. Others to the south are on cycles of 105-110 seconds long, each with about a five- or six-second walk light.

Down the street at Union, they took out the traffic light a few years ago and installed a button-activated pedestrian crossing. Because it’s between Market Square and some of my favorite Gay Street establishments, I’ve pushed the button many times over the years. Of course, I’ve never waited around long enough to witness the pedestrian light actually change. Pushing it’s just a pre-jaywalking ritual.

The other day I blocked out some extra time at lunch, and went there with a watch. It turns out the light does change—a minute and a half after you press the button. I’ve never witnessed anyone actually wait 90 seconds to cross two lanes of usually light traffic. Maybe no one ever has.

It’s fitting that downtown’s most famous moment in film is a brief scene in October Sky , when Jake Gyllenhaal jaywalks Gay at Clinch.


That’s Gay Street, which is quicker to cross than some other downtown streets, especially Henley and Summit Hill. They’re more daunting to cross legally, even if you’re up for the wait; the walk sign is only a glimmer—blink, and you’ll miss it—and because the Red Hand is always flashing by the time you get to the median, the implication is that you’re expected to wait there for another light.

Last year, on my way to Harold’s, I began crossing the instant the Walking Man showed. I’m an expeditious pedestrian, but the red hand was flashing before I was halfway across. Often, cars turning left on green challenge me, and this time a driver shouted out his window:

“Hey, look at the sign, dumbass!”

I shouted back an invitation to discuss the matter—that my theory of the flashing red is that it means go ahead and finish crossing—but they gunned the engine and were off to points west. He was, like all people who shout or gesticulate from moving vehicles, not much of a debater.

Cycles are unusually slow, and so is the grace period, that warning gap between the flashing red and the hazard of actual automobile traffic crossing your path. All over town, the Walking Man yields to the Red Hand 15-35 seconds before traffic light changes present any hazard to walkers. There’s no obvious consistency to their length, but they all allow for a range of very slow crossings.

Curious, I looked for guidelines on the matter. National standards call for walk lights to allow for a pedestrian moving at a rate of four feet per second. That may sound fast, but try it: it’s a slow amble. If you take five minutes to walk around a quarter-mile track, you’re walking faster than that. Some advocates for the handicapped have recommended that standard be lowered to three and a half feet per second.

Knoxville crossing lights seem to allow for an average pace that’s slower still, some of only about one foot per second.

You might argue that our crossing-signal slowness proves we’re more safety conscious than other cities—that we’re being extra extra careful for the sake of Civil War widows or visiting walruses.

But the practical result of it is that all of downtown is flashing red hands most of the time, and Knoxvillians learn at an early age that walk signals are, more or less, Christmas decorations.

Spot checking of some intersections at lunchtime the last few days, it’s clear the percentage of compliance to crossing-signal suggestions is in the single digits. We just stand and wait hopefully for a gap in the traffic. Which is, I guess, what our pioneer ancestors did, in the days before Edison’s invention was modified for traffic control.

© 2005 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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