[Image from Dusty Lens]
This is a story that happened to a friend of mine a few months ago.
He was walking along University Avenue near the site of the 35-W bridge rebuilding project, on his way from somewhere to somewhere else, minding his own business on the sidewalk. Now, I should mention that the 35-W bridge area is kind of a crazy place to be these days, as particularly around Rush Hour it starts to resemble Times Square with cars streaming over the river crossing willy-nilly trying to find alternatives, trying to get onto the freeway and to homes in the Northwestern suburbs along the city streets. For a while after work gets out traffic cops man the corners every afternoon throughout near Northeast Minneapolis, waving their arms like lion tamers in a routine that must surely get painfully old for everyone involved.
So my friend is walking along and he comes to one of the busier intersections near the bridge where cars are backed up, everyone trying to turn and get onto the 3rd Avenue Bridge or onto university to head towards the freeway entrance. He's walking along the sidewalk until he gets to the stoplight, and waits there, looking over at the line of cars, looking up at the red light and the pale red "don't walk" sign as it compels him to stop and smell the flowers (or exhaust fumes, as the case may be). The corner is fairly busy, and he's standing next to another U of MN student type walking back to Dinkytown.
At last the light blinks green and the sign says "walk" and he steps off the curb. And that's when the definitive event occurs.
Apparently a car had been inching out into the intersection, trying to turn left, and ended up stranded in the middle of the intersection, "blocking the box" as cars now started coming from the opposite direction as the light switched. This car was stuck trying to push the rules of traffic a little too far, and my friend was walking through the crosswalk obeying the signs, enjoying his right of way on his way home.
The guy next to him on the sidewalk, though, said all of a sudden, "Hey wait, let this car through", and that's when my friend turned militant.
"No," he said at least as much with his body language and continued through the crosswalk on his way somewhere. "That's rude", said the other guy.
And that made it stick in my friend's head, long enough to relate the story to me some time later.
Was it rude? Who deserves to be in the street in this situation?
You have a number of people claiming space, and asserting their right to the asphalt. You have the pedestrian, walking home on their two feet, continually paranoid about being hit by cars, looking both ways and nervously occupying the margin between the private houses and the traffic flow. You have the cars on their way home, properly obeying traffic laws, who are suddenly stuck behind a car that's in their way, trying to turn on a red light. And you have the guy who's stuck in the middle of the intersection, who thought he could make it while the light was green, now desperately trying to get out of the way of everybody else.
Something's got to give, and, at least according to my friend, it shouldn't be the person on foot.
Well, who's in the right? What should you do?
In my mind, the answer largely depends on where you are. In New York City, the pedestrian is very much in the right to walk in front of the cars without thinking twice about it. There are a ton of people who are walking around all the time, the sidewalks are packed, and the pedestrian population has achieved a "critical mass" that allows it to assert and claim for itself the space between the crosswalk lines. (New York recently passed a stringent "don't block the box" law that assigns steep fines for cars that get stuck in the middle of intersections in situations like this, meant to discourage overly-aggressive driving.)
In most of the Midwest, on the other hand, it's a lonely man who walks the sidewalk. Cars turning left almost always get their way by cheating through the intersection.