Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Letter from Pedestrianica.4

Everyone knows the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. And the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B is by car. This letter should really be a diagram, but for now, I’m just going to write my way into it.

Because this letter is not a straight line. But then it’s not a motorist, either—we’re in Pedestrianica, aren’t we? We’re going to do some meandering. Still, this will be quick, I promise: when walking, we try to keep our sights set, no matter how obscured, on Point B.

To accommodate cars, cities become a convoluted tyranny of angles. Think of all those turns you must make, softened though they may be by the guiding voice of the Garmin: rarely do they stray from 90 degrees. Your route, when mapped, looks like a series of steps:


Ridiculous, you say, and you’re right, and you list off a dozen exceptions: Streets that bleed into one another, that merge or veer in an ordinal direction. Scenic drives that follow the curves of rivers or bluffs. Corners with their elbows lopped off to allow for smoother turns (and longer crosswalks).

There’s a 6-way intersection near my house that I swear was designed to kill crackheads. There’s a liquor store there, and a lot of marginalized foot traffic, and though there does seem to be some sort of traffic light somewhere, we pedestrians still have to look in a lot of different directions to make sure no cars are careening towards us. This intersection frees the motorist from that 90-degree tyranny: you can turn up the diagonal street without even tapping the brake. That’s why you’re driving, right? Momentum.

Another interesting way to cut corners is the gas station parking lot. Here, if you are a motorist, if you’re waiting in line to make a right-hand turn, you can use this corner lot as a kind of warp zone, speed right on through and knock a couple minutes off your commute. If you have a more immediate goal in mind, if you need to suckle for a minute at petroleum’s pricey teat, you use this space to engage in a series of awkward maneuvers. You back up, then inch forward, then back up, then inch forward, then erratically lap the lot on your way to a better pump.

Your range of motion—best seen in spaces like these—while forceful, has its limit. 

As pedestrians, we too use this space to cut corners, but warily, as we never know from what direction you might veer. Taking the long way around can be just as tricky: the skin between gas station and street is manically permeable, a series of ins and outs that void the safety of the sidewalk, and that never cease.

Because beneath the apparent order of the right angle looms a chaos, a violent unpredictability that city planning fails to tame. Cars, by nature—even the sleekest—are clunky, are stilted and averse to curves. Paradoxically, though, they are sprawling in the amount of physical and mental space they take up.   

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