September 30th, 2006


Like Lemmings To The Slaughter.

One thing I've noticed about Portland is that the pedestrians here have a deathwish.

Pedestrians in other cities may dawdle or jaywalk, but they're at least governed by instincts of self-preservation which prevent them from throwing themselves directly into the path of fast-moving traffic. A San Franciscan jaywalker, for example, will only cross in front of you against the light when it first turns green, before you've had the chance to pick up any momentum. And he won't dawdle unless it's clear that you lack the courage to plow over him on purpose. To the San Franciscan, jaywalking is an act of rudeness, not of suicide. His behavior is calculated to maximize his convenience with minimal risk to his safety.

But here in Portland, pedestrians wander blithely into traffic with all the confidence of Superman. Their awareness that a car may be coming is equal to that of an Amish child in the jungles of Brazil. The faster and the nearer your car, the greater their urge to enter its path. They set their gaze directly before them, staring rigidly in a direction perpendicular to the road, and launch themselves from the curb like the electric bunny in a dog race, resisting any impulse to glance to either side. Often their route isn't so direct; some prefer a more circuitous route to maximize the time spent in the street. They'll wander alongside the road, near the sidewalk but not on it, veering further into the street only when the sound of cars grows loud enough to suggest danger. Sometimes, they'll bring a bike with them on their suicide missions, to trick you into believing that their speed will surpass that of a walking person, or that they'll signal before turning, or that their handlebars will enable them to steer in a straight line. Gone is the knowing sneer of the San Franciscan, who is smugly aware of you and your car and your frustrated desire to drive it through him. His smugness is here replaced by the cheery conviction that cars, if they ever existed, must have all died off long ago with the unicorns.

The consequences of all this would be amusing if they weren't fatal. When I lived in California, news reports of pedestrians being hit by cars were few and far between. Maybe once every couple of months you'd hear of a hit'n'run. But here in Portland, I see news of such accidents EVERY WEEK. Pedestrians are dropping like flies. They're reducing Oregon's population faster than Californians can move up here.

And I don't know if there's a solution. We could encourage Oregonians to look both ways before crossing, but I'm not convinced they would embrace so drastic a paradigm shift. After all, this is a state that prohibited self-service gas stations on the grounds that her citizens would accidentally blow up the pumps. This is a state that erects billboards warning pedestrians that they weigh less than trains (!) and would therefore fare poorly in a person-vs-train collision. Oregonian ignorance of large vehicles is perhaps too deep-seated to be remedied, especially in the case of pedestrians. Our only hope is that PBS will film a documentary of these noble, slow-moving creatures before they slip inevitably into extinction.