A few weeks back, I was waiting to cross Gay Street at Main. Before the Henley Bridge closure, this was a pretty easy routine. People regularly ignored the pedestrian signal, watched for a break in traffic, and went for it.
Since the shutdown, it’s not quite so simple. The intersection is regularly choked with drivers making their way toward the Gay Street Bridge, and the final block between Main and the river is the bottleneck. A police officer carrying lunch back to the City County Building joined me on the corner and we waited together—not for the pedestrian signal mind you, but for gridlock. Once vehicles were sufficiently jammed, we slipped between bumpers to the other side against the glowing red signal. We concurred that it was the safest thing to do.
It had been less than a week since a 31-year-old woman was hit by a Ford Ranger at that same intersection. The circumstances were a little different. Traffic was flowing, she was crossing on the opposite corner, walking with the signal, and (I’m speculating here) without a uniformed officer carrying a Chick-fil-A bag. She was taken to the hospital, and the driver was cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian.
It’s one of those primordial laws that has been dusted off and applied with increased frequency downtown recently. The police seemed to have stumbled upon it in some dusty old book of ordinances less than a month earlier when another woman attempting to cross a street was hit by a GMC Yukon a couple of blocks away at State Street and Church Avenue. That incident sent her to the hospital as well. She, too, was crossing with the traffic signal. And that driver was also cited for failure to yield to a pedestrian.
As I’ve mentioned before, downtown’s gained a lot more traffic since the bridge closure. I think it’s more than simple coincidence that we’ve had two such accidents in the four months since TDOT began rerouting traffic around the construction. Most drivers follow the official detour to James White Parkway, but many take the brute force route through downtown. Drivers more accustomed to entrance ramps and yield signs are finding themselves in a grid full of red lights and crosswalks as they make their way to the other side of the river. While the city has made some adjustments, such as tweaking the timing of traffic lights to help facilitate the flow of vehicles, you’ll see very little effort to accommodate the steady growth of pedestrian traffic that has built over the past decade, which now finds itself in the path of increasing automobile traffic.
It’s a safe bet that the vast majority of citations written in downtown are for parking. Enforcement may be spotty, but it’s enough to give drivers pause as to where and how long they leave their vehicles. I probably field the question, “Do you think they’ll ticket me there?” more often than I give directions. That kind of enforcement keeps people from leaving their car at a meter all day, which helps maintain the short-term street parking that helps the city’s economy. It’s appreciated both by merchants, who need to offer easy access, and by drivers who need to make a quick stop downtown to pay a bill or pick up something. But it doesn’t really contribute much to anyone’s safety. I have yet to see a pedestrian injured by a parked car who didn’t deserve it. However, that consciousness by drivers about getting a ticket translates to a certain climate of parking behavior.
On the other hand, something you’ll rarely see downtown is a vehicle being ticketed for a moving violation. Spend a few minutes at any intersection, and you’ll see cars and trucks running stop signs and making rights on red without stopping, with little regard for anything other than being hit by another vehicle. Drivers chirp their tires pulling away from green lights and gun down Gay Street trying to beat the next light a block away without a giving a thought to getting a ticket for such reckless behavior. It just doesn’t happen.
That lack of enforcement likewise creates a climate of behavior. But unlike the concern for getting a parking ticket, it engenders a disregard for some very basic safety principles. Maybe its coincidence, but there seems to be a trend of people on foot being hit by people in vehicles downtown. And it’s a climate that needs to change.
It shouldn’t take another ambulance hauling another law-abiding pedestrian to the emergency room before city officials devote some attention to the situation. Sure, the bridge will take back a lot of traffic when it reopens. But at the rate things are going, now is the time to begin fostering a safer environment for everyone through traffic enforcement. We can’t count on traffic jams to make it safe to cross the street forever.