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Left Coast/Right Coast: It should be so simple

Mike Gold thinks about the differences between crossing the street in New York City and Mill Creek. You’d think it would be the same, but it’s not.
Mike Gold is a retired entrepreneur providing his views on the Northwest. Photo credit: Katie Stearns.

Mike Gold writes for the News of Mill Creek on a regular basis. He is a retired entrepreneur and describes himself as a, “relatively recent transplant to the West Coast. I have lived (born and raised) in the Northeastern U.S. So these observations are based upon ‘living the dream’ in the Pacific Northwest.”

I was thinking back to my days as a newspaper delivery boy in suburban New York and a very brief stint as a bicycle messenger in the City. These jobs were fraught with danger. There you are, early in the morning – very little daylight – and you’re out on your bicycle riding along delivering newspapers. Or there you are in the middle of some of the densest traffic in the world, riding your bike – darting between cars – both stationary and moving. In those days, there were no helmets. Even if you wore one (as they do today), you’d really need a suit made out of that indestructible material they make the airplane black boxes out of. (Or as one wag said, “Why don’t they make the whole plane out of that stuff?”)

So I got to thinking about crossing the street. It should be so simple. However, there is a fundamental difference between East Coast and West Coast street crossing protocol. In Manhattan, anywhere in NY City for that matter, pedestrians are always in a hurry. Don’t want to cross at a crosswalk, no problem. Simply venture out into the traffic and play your real-life version of Frogger (George playing Frogger – from Seinfeld).

Most folks in Manhattan simply ignore any and all rules for pedestrians. They just cross the block – whether in the middle or at a corner. They play their “Frogger” by anticipating gaps in the traffic such that they can get across the street quickly.

Now, the north/south blocks in Manhattan (the “avenues;” ex: 5th Avenue, 6th Avenue, etc.) are quite long – and quite wide. The cars, especially taxis really gun it between blocks – so as to “make” the next traffic light before it turns red. You routinely see taxis accelerating between the “cross streets” (ex. 42nd Street, 34th Street, etc.) up to 50 or 60 mph. It is the “grand prix” of NY City. So it is especially dangerous for the jaywalkers. In fact, fatal accidents are rare. Attribute that to the skill of both the pedestrians and the taxi drivers. It is just a giant game of chicken.

At one point, the mayor of New York decided that rules enforcement should be 100%. So he directed the police to write up tickets to jaywalkers. That mayor did not get reelected, I suggest, mainly due to this radically unpopular enforcement. The free will and enjoyment of jaywalking was/is far more important to New Yorkers than their individual safety. (Or as those who run The Darwin Awards say, the unsuccessful simply improve the gene pool by getting themselves “offed.”

I lived and worked in northern Germany as a graduate student. There, in the city of Kiel Germany, walking about downtown, no matter what time of day or night, if you walked across a street against the red light, you were reminded in stern German, “Nicht zu Fuß” (don’t walk). And they meant it. The Polizei are armed with Uzi sub-machine guns. You really don’t want to argue. As an aside, this ruthless obedience to anyone in uniform, in a position of authority (or even a blinking “don’t walk” sign) is perhaps a sign of how Germany got into the position they did in the late 1930’s.

Contrast that with the West Coast (those on foot always have the right of way). I either walk or ride my bike to L.A. Fitness each morning. I have to cross Bothell-Everett Highway. When I first arrived, I simply ignored the traffic lights and did what I had done my entire life back East. Just find the “seam” in the traffic (Frogger redeux) and ride/run across the road.

After being stopped by a police cruiser several times, (how humiliating is that – pulled over by a police cruiser while on a bike!) and no matter how forcefully I explained my past and my “ability” to avoid getting hit, I finally now wait for the crosswalk signal.

I think my undoing was probably the fact that several times as I “picked” my way across the road, cars had to stop to give me the right of way.

You know what they say (at least back East), “No risk no reward.” After all, at my customary $100,000/hour rate, those 5 seconds I saved by jaywalking are worth $139.

See you either on the road or in the emergency ward. Here I am.

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