Monday, August 30, 2010

Divine right and the four-way stop

(Updated below.)

The route of my morning commute for the last couple of weeks had four traffic lights and one four-way stop.

Two of the signals have sensors in the auto lane, but they don’t detect bicycles. One has a sensor in the bike lane, but it apparently doesn’t sense bicycles either, for reasons of its own. (I’m thinking about experimenting along these lines.) One has a sensor mounted on the light boom over the intersection, and it always seems to notice me. Ironically, it’s also the only intersection with easy access to the pedestrian-crossing button.

In all four cases my street is the less-busy cross-street, and the system seems to prefer giving the major street much more time on the green light. (Two of the intersections are among the most high-traffic spots in the county, I’ve been told.) This makes the cars around me impatient too (it's morning commute time, remember), and when they act on their impatience things can get difficult. As rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke once wrote, whether the pitcher hits the rock or the rock hits the pitcher, it’s bad news for the pitcher.*

Clocking it a few times and doing some quick mental arithmetic (you know me), I discovered that something like a quarter to a third of the whole commute time was spent at those lights.

But the risks and annoyance at these intersections are as nothing compared to that single four-way stop. It’s at the crossing of two wide, straight streets, no trees, no parked cars, and a well-marked bike lane. To the unschooled eye, it’s the intersection that seems best-designed for bike and auto traffic sharing. It’s also the intersection I fear most.

This intersection is of considerable theological significance, not unlike the location of the Garden of Eden, Noah’s ark, or the ark of the Covenant -- the only difference being that this intersection is on Google Maps but those other three, as far as I know, aren’t.

The significance is this: This is the intersection, alone among all the intersections in all of Creation, where God Himself sends those drivers He specifically wants to go through the intersection first.

The drivers all know they are among the elect whom the Divine Hand has placed there to enter the intersection first -- boy, do they know it. They also fully understand that it would be second-guessing Divine Will to use their turn signals. That might be interpreted as something less than perfect belief in their own exalted status as God’s Chosen Drivers. It would be like Noah taking out flood insurance. 

Cyclists, as children of a lesser god, enter that intersection at their peril. Many is the time I’ve stopped in the bike lane, put both feet flat on the ground, and waved the motorists through. Occasionally the driver seems to hesitate -- politeness? a crisis of faith? -- and I have to make it clear by pantomime that I’m perfectly prepared to sell the bike right there and go the rest of the way on foot rather than give them a clean shot at me by rolling out there in front of them.

*Long time p3 correspondent Doctor Beyond -- who was reading p3 before Paul Krugman made reading p3 cool -- did the checking and found that the pitcher/rock line is actually from "The Man of La Mancha." I was certain it was Burke, so when I did my Google check, I left "burke" in among the keywords and never found it. But I ran with it anyway, figuring that Burke was just too obscure for Google. (Try finding mention of his "A Definition of Man" online sometime.) DB was pretty sure it was MoLM even before the search, just from listening to the cast album. Out-flanked on show tunes -- damn!

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