Sunday, October 06, 2013

Meditation on Civic Virtue

My father was a New Hampshire man, a man who distrusted FDR, had no use for Harry Truman, and admired Herbert Hoover., but it's not quite what you think.  He was gentle and thoughtful, and he espoused a bedrock social theory:

"If people would just obey the law, we wouldn't have to hire so many police."

I think of him whenever I get back to Boston, where I more than once had occasion to admire his capacity to master the city's notoriously awful traffic. 

And in particular, when I stick my toe into a crosswalk.  I don't know, maybe the locals have this down, but I am never quite sure what will happen when I step into a Boston crosswalk.  Will I safely make it to the other side?  Or will I be swept along on the hood of some offended vehicle, while he driver yells at me to get offa his car (I think I saw this in a movie once).

Maybe my overdo it.  Maybe Boston pedestrians can move freely and safely like the mama and her brood in Robert McCloskey's Make Way for Ducklings.  But I tend to doubt it.  I always get the feeling that the oncoming driver regards me as an offense, just daring me to exercise my Constitutional right to reach the opposite side of the street in one piece (remind me again--which Amendment guarantees crosswalk safety?).

The other side of the coin is that I live in California.  And say what you like about this raucous brood: in my experience, Californians are positively fanatic about crosswalks.  They respect them. They stop.  They let you cross. For the most part they even obey the invisible crosswalk in the middle of the block.

And it's not just crosswalks. Back in the 80s, I spent a while bunking down way out in the San Fernando Valley, and taking the morning commuter bus in to the Federal Courthouse.  The trip was interesting, inter alia, because it involved the mother of all merges: the Five, coming in from the San Fernando, had to feed into the Ten, going south from Pasadena to Long Beach.  And here's the thing: not only to Californians respect crosswalks; they also merge.  I mean, every morning I'd see find myself part of this wall of cars trying to make its way onto the newly combined roadway. And every morning, it worked.  One goes.  The other goes.  One goes, the other goes, and in no time at all, life goes on as before.

I'll grant that that was a few years ago and thing might have changed. but I doubt it.  More generally, my take is that Californians really do know how to behave in traffic, with (this once, at least) a developed sense of civic virtue.  Mostly.  [One qualification; Mrs. Buce argues that Californians are actually quite good drivers, with the catch that you have to be as good as they are or you are going to gum up the whole works.  This seems right to me, but I don't think it spoils my point.]

I thought of all this again this week The Economist's excellent meditation on traffic roundabouts.  The whole thing is worth reading, but consider:
Roundabouts tend to work only when motorists observe the British virtues of fair play and stick to the rules. Alas, this is not always the case. ... If drivers do not yield, roundabouts degenerate swiftly into gridlock. And in places where driving standards are poor, people often plough straight onto them. In Nairobi, for example, the four roundabouts that mark the city’s heart are so badly jammed that policemen have been drafted in to act as human traffic lights. When it rains, the officers seek shelter and the mess gets even worse. 
Delete And there you have it: things work when people want them to work, and work to make them work.  Which is to say, my father had a point. Bust exactly when do they work; and perhaps more urgent, how do you encourage them to work?  Ah, now that is a fascinating and far more complicated story.  The truth is, I haven't the least idea how this kid of civic virtue is created or destroyed.  My consolation is that I don't think anyone else does either. 


marcel said...

I've been living in NH for 13 years (after an equal time in the midwest), and I don't think I've ever seen a driver with VT or NH plates violate a pedestrian's right to the cross-walk, ONCE THEY ARE IN THE CROSS-WALK. Western Mass seems to be largely the same. Not sure about Boston.

On another note, my family lived in CA for a few years, half a century ago, and for the rest of my childhood, my parents spoke about drivers there just as your wife does.

Anonymous said...

Near 20 years ago I visited my brother-in-law in Boston. He lived in Back Bay. One evening we walked to Newport St where the restaurants are and I stopped to wait for the traffic light to go green. The BIL said come on no pedestrian in Boston pays attention to signals. The other interesting part of that trip was my first acquaintance with roundabouts. No Boston driver honked at me or gave me any reason to fear them. The other experience in Boston was driving to Logan in rush hour and arriving at that plaza where, I don't know, maybe 5 roads converge. It was jammed and I wondered how I was going to make it across the plaza to the road to Logan. Wonder of wonders! It was like the Red Sea parting as driver after driver gave me permission to pass infront of them. After those experiences I wondered where to myth of Boston being a city of bad driver came from.

bjdubbs said...

No, Boston is full of bad drivers. Blocking the box is virtually a moral obligation - if you're not blocking the box, you'll definitely hear about it from the drivers behind you. I wonder if it has something to do with the Irish in Boston trying to offend as many old WASPs as possible.