A Culture of Crossings

The drawing in of the autumn nights and the sight of packs of newly arrived university students sets me off on a walk down memory lane:

It was nearing midnight. Autumn leaves crackled under foot and the moonlit air was crisp and cool. It was a like a Fall evening back home in New England, not how I’d expected the weather to be during my first time living in the notorious damp of old England.

I stood at the corner of the road with three young men and one other young woman. One of the blokes was German, the others were English. They were all in their first year at University. I was on my Junior Year Abroad. Feeling slightly tipsy after an evening spent in a couple of pubs sampling local specialities like ‘cider and black’, I wondered why we’d stopped. I took a step forward to cross the road when I felt a hand briefly on my arm.

“Wait for the green man,” said the tall, blond German, with a flash of his goofy grin. “I pushed the button,” he added.

“Really?” I looked around at my English companions. One of them shrugged. They would happily jaywalk, but they were equally happy to humour our Teutonic friend. And so we did. A full minute passed, during which the roads around us were so deserted of moving vehicles that we did not even hear a single car in the distance. Eventually, the light turned from the red man to the green. We crossed the road and continued our journey back to our student rooms.

This memory gave birth to a hypothesis that I have long nourished, mostly in private. I have no proof. I have completed no scientific studies. I have not even undertaken any surveys. But I still have this inkling that there is a nugget of truth in my idea, which is, simply, that there are cultural influences and differences in how we cross the road, and how we regulate crossing the road.

Chicken jokes aside, we all cross roads because we want to get to the other side. Most people would agree that they usually prefer to get there sooner rather than later. Individuals rarely jaywalk because they like dodging traffic. They jaywalk because they don’t want to wait. I’ve never had the impression that Germans jaywalk less because they have more patience. Rather, they like order, they like regulated roads and they like to follow those regulations.

I am aware that a person can be stopped and fined by a German police officer if said person jaywalks. But a person can also be stopped and fined in many parts of the United States. Can be and will be are two different matters. Unless a person is in Singapore, where apparently jaywalking can warrant a prison sentence, enforcement is minimal in most parts of the world, even if there are laws to govern such behaviours.

I am not necessarily interested in the lack of enforcement, but the rather the reasons for this lack. My speculation is that enforcement is minimal in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States for different reasons. In Germany, it is usually simply unnecessary. Vehicles are supposed to give way to pedestrians, and yet most Germans will still find the nearest crossing, press the button and go when it is their turn.

In Britain, pedestrians must either be at a crossing or already have stepped off the kerb before a car must give way, but it is common to see people press the button and then step out anyway if they think they can get at least halfway across before the oncoming traffic reaches them. British people seem to like having their road layouts formalised with controlled crossings of a variety of types, only to ignore the regulations that accompany those crossings when on foot.

Americans, meanwhile, if they walk at all, prefer a more laissez faire system altogether. There are fewer formalised crossings. Instead, there are long stretches of road generally designated ‘Yield to Pedestrians’ and other long stretches of road where pedestrians have no choice but to dodge across traffic. Drivers and pedestrians have to take some responsibility for watching out for each other. Even signalised crosswalks are often subject to a less rigid determination of right of way, as drivers can frequently, legally turn into crossings with a white ‘WALK’ or man light, so long as they don’t run anyone over.

Conclusion? There is a culture of crossings. However, university memories aside, I don’t think I quite have enough evidence to base a doctoral thesis on. I guess I need to make just a few more observations the next time I find myself waiting for a green man – in any country.

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