Coming Soon: Scrambled Pedestrian : Daydreaming When crossing the road is street culture.
NPR logo Coming Soon: Scrambled Pedestrian

Coming Soon: Scrambled Pedestrian

Actually, make that a pedestrian scramble crosswalk. As reported in UCLA's staff and student newspaper, UCLA Today, the Westwood Los Angeles university is going to get a new style of crosswalk where pedestrians will be able to cross in any direction, including diagonally.

Traffic engineers say the scramble crosswalk will be safer for pedestrians to cross — because all traffic, including vehicles that can now turn right on a red light, must stop, leaving the intersection wide open for people on foot. In the past, some drivers have run red lights, injuring pedestrians trying to cross. Pedestrians should only experience a slight delay as they wait for the signal to scramble. [full story][hat tip LAist]

Crossing the street is an under-examined, almost unconscious part of a city's culture, and the diagonal free-for-all of the scramble is most directly associated (in my mind, at least) with Tokyo's Shibuya district. The alternating, orderly transformation of a crosswalk into a plaza and back again (as depicted in the Youtube clip above) will likely always scan as uniquely Tokyo no matter how many such intersections crop up in Westwood. (In the LA area, Beverly Hills and Old Town Pasadena have quietly used the system for years at a few intersections.)

One of the big markers of my own transition from New Yorker to Angeleno was when my inborn impulse to cross the street against the light was finally, fully suppressed. In an essay called "Jaywalking Town," writer Garrison Frost lays out the geography of jaywalking:

San Francisco is a jaywalking town. So is Philadelphia. So is Boston. I haven't spent a lot of time as a pedestrian in New York City, but my impression is that it's a jaywalking town, too.

Los Angeles is not a jaywalking town.

In a jaywalking town, you can cross the street whenever you want without worrying about getting a ticket. Sure, you might get run down by a truck, but whether or not you take that risk is up to you. There are Walk and Don't Walk signs and crosswalks to give you something to fall back on, but one should really consider the distinction between the sidewalk and the road as a little fuzzier than in other places. In other words, if you think it's safe to cross the street, you're more than welcomed to in a jaywalking town.

In Los Angeles, we just don't do things that way. At a lighted intersection, pedestrians wait their turn whether or not there is any vehicular traffic in the road. Part of this probably has to do with the fact that jaywalking is strictly enforced in Los Angeles, but part of it also has to do with the fact that we're just trained that way. Perhaps it has something to do with our car culture; as drivers we feel the road should belong to the trucks and automobiles, so as pedestrians we do our part to keep it that way. It's not as though we Angelenos are particularly law abiding. Given our recreational drug use, sketchy income tax deductions, speeding and the porn industry, we can skirt the law as well as anyone. It's just that when it comes to walking, we stay above board.

There are lots of ways to spot a person from Los Angeles who is away from home: clothing, manner of speech, an uncanny ability to parallel park. But one of the easiest is to simply watch how he or she crosses the street. The tourist from Los Angeles will be the one just standing there at the curb spacing out while the throngs of locals shoulder by into the street.

And as someone from Los Angeles, I can tell you that few moments are as embarrassing as that instant when a local crossing the street glances back inquisitively at you standing there on the curb. [full story]

Tellingly, the pedestrian scramble, with its futuristic diagonal right-of-way, seems to pretty much build-in the assumption the local walkers do not jay, making it perfect for LA. Still, in much the same way that I have to suppress the impulse to drive down the wrong side of the road after an extended Grand Theft Auto jag, I still have to force myself to stand still at intersections in LA. "I completely could've made that," is what I'm thinking.