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Friday, February 18, 2011

Old Man Walking—Just like a Train

Get Out of My Way, You Jerk, a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, examined the causes and consequences of pedestrian sidewalk rage. The feature cited average rates of locomotion in Manhattan for men (4.42 feet per second), women (4.10 fps), cellphone users (4.20 fps), tourists (3.79 fps), and others.

And it sparked my memories of an elderly Brit with two oversized canes and the air of a professor emeritus whose forward progress gave new meaning to the word glacial. Until last June’s heat wave, he would walk each day onto my campus (the University of Massachusetts at Amherst), eventually stopping for lunch at a campus cafeteria.

Although he moved at a tempo apart, no one who ever saw him failed to admire his grit and his walk ethic. Still, when he extended a cane onto the crosswalk at Massachusetts Avenue—a large thoroughfare that bisects the campus—he became the scourge of most drivers at directional cross-purposes. At those crossings, prominent Ped-X-ing signs and tight campus police enforcement ensure that foot traffic rules.

So how long might a driver on the wrong side of the cane wait for our friend? One day I timed his passage across the two east-bound lanes (15 feet across total). Getting across both took him 42 seconds—an eternity if you’re behind the wheel, perhaps an eternity and a day if you’re a student behind the wheel.

A 42 second stroll--15 feet across

Just like a train. “For me it’s not unlike coming up short at a train crossing,” observes a friend who studies the behavior and psychology of decision making by accountants. “At first there’s shock and disappointment that you just might have an indeterminate wait on your hands. How you adjust—how you shift gears mentally and emotionally—is critical, of course, to your short-term disposition. Why not count train cars from Peoria or root for the aging professor as he goes for the gold?”

Sometimes, though, a more pragmatic response can present itself. If you’re in the far lane, and the cane has just touched down on the crosswalk, you have 21 seconds before it reaches your lane. Many drivers, in fact, grab daylight while they can. But a strict interpretation of Massachusetts law, i.e., “law driving,”--the stuff you learn to get your license—requires that you stop your vehicle whenever anyone sets foot (or cane) on a crosswalk. Fortunately, there are broader interpretations of the law: “In a situation like that,” observed a campus police officer, "my recommendation is—use good driving judgment!"

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