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Civil Society at the Street Level

Anders Hove

When Mayor Rudolph Giuliani first announced plans to remake the denizens of New York into upstanding citizens of a "civil society," most residents were aghast. Getting Gotham's pedestrians to cross at the light would be a transformation every bit as dramatic as that performed by Professor Henry Higgins on Eliza Doolittle.

Would New York still be New York without the cursing, honking, and general mayhem? Many New Yorkers have their doubts about civil society, and many have expressed them in no uncertain terms to police officers manning new pedestrian barricades.

In one humorous episode, one reporter for The New York Times set out to learn what sanctions police would impose for violations of the new jaywalking policy. Jaywalking in front of the barriers, often directly in front of police officers who watched his every move, the reporter not only failed to receive a single ticket, but officers wouldn't even reprimand him when he demanded a one.

Although New Yorkers don't like to hear it, Boston driving and pedestrian conduct is similar to New York's. As The Boston Globe pointed out in one editorial headline, driving in Boston is no tea party. People double park in the most outrageous places - next to police cars at Dunkin' Donuts, for example. At intersections, cars squeeze past pedestrians on crosswalks as if they were cattle on a country road. And in spite of recent attempts to stamp it out, the tradition remains that in Massachusetts, two cars are allowed to pass after the light turns red.

Although I am myself a driver in the state, I have been frustrated for years at how police here are so little inclined to pull people over for traffic violations. In most states, small rural communities look at moving violations as a cash cow: The more outsiders police pull over, the more money to maintain local government. Though Massachusetts has many small and medium-sized towns, this ethic has never quite taken hold, perhaps because high crime levels in some communities prevent the assigning of officers for such lowly, revenue-generating purposes.

Recently the tide has turned, if only slightly. During the past two months I have seen three stops of vehicles running red lights - that's three more than I've seen in the previous five years - and one of them involved a dramatic moving sting carried out blocks from my own house. As Simpson's police chief Wiggum puts it, "That's nice work, boys."

Traffic is so bad here that it's difficult to be a good driver. When so many people run red lights, how can drivers make and execute left-hand turns in heavy traffic without darting in front? Indeed, stopping for red lights can be dangerous because those behind are so intent on getting through.

As more and more vehicles whisk past the red light after the change, traffic signals themselves lose meaning. During a power-outage last year, I was impressed at how well most drivers negotiated their way through congested and completely uncontrolled intersections. In a way, they've been dealing with intersection anarchy all along.

Pedestrians and bicyclists are a more difficult puzzle. Bad driving places these two groups at risk. Yet bicyclists and pedestrians show little interest in safety. While drivers grudgingly recognize the authority of the red light, many bicyclists don't. Instead they plow through intersections with barely a glance to the right and left. The resulting danger of swerving vehicles threatens everyone.

Pedestrians are not much better. They have an amazing knack for starting out across the crosswalk exactly as the light turns green for the opposing direction. It is the driver's responsibility to watch for pedestrians on crosswalks, but pedestrians are eager to make life difficult for drivers, increasing the danger.

Boston and its surrounding cities and towns are ripe for the Giuliani treatment. Much as we often turn a blind eye toward petty misdemeanors like jaywalking, speeding, and running red lights, they do have serious consequences. Other cities have controlled these activities without lowering the quality of life. Boston and New York can too.