Monday, June 12, 2006

Crossing the street, all by yourself and otherwise

Our county boasts -- and boasts about having -- just one stoplight.

It's somewhat common to give directions to travelers by saying something like "It's about half a mile west of the stoplight." This is generally followed by a confused and/or wary pause on the part of the stranger, into which the local giving the directions can drop assurances that the visitor can't possibly get lost using those directions because there's only one stoplight in the county.

This is admittedly splitting hairs a bit, because some of the outlying smaller towns have blinking lights (red for some directions, yellow for others) that look very much like stoplights, but aren't. But, strictly speaking, it's true -- there's only one stoplight, doing that green, yellow, red routine. On top of that it's fun.

Sometimes as they walk away you hear the bemused tourist calling a friend on the phone to report that he's landed in a county -- not just a town, but a whole big county only somewhat smaller than Connecticut -- with only one stoplight. With some of these folks, you'd think they'd decided they'd found something akin to a lost Stone Age tribe or something, the way they react.

That's if they believe you. Some folks refuse to believe there's anywhere left in America where people are still thought capable of sorting themselves out at intersections, I guess. ;)

(Yes. Yes. I know. Some places have much more traffic than we do, and the requirements for traffic control are entirely different. I'm just saying some people can't believe the world can exist without traffic lights all over the place, no matter what the actual conditions. Trust me on this. I've seen folks drop their jaw when told we have only one stoplight. It had not occurred to them that such a thing is possible. Go figure.)

For as long as I can remember there have been plans by city fathers and state-level do-gooders to add more stoplights, and for as long as I can remember the population in general has protested that it is fun - distinctive - a selling point - a badge of honor - to be a county with just one stoplight. This spirited defense of the status quo is to a large extent tongue-in-cheek, you understand -- at least for most people. (Some people can be fanatics about anything, can't they? Even the dubious distinction of having just one traffic light, sorry to say. Sigh.)

The intersection with the stoplight also comes complete with large buttons at about waist level that pedestrians can push to change the light, to hurry things a bit. If you sit at the Dairy Queen, which sits at this intersection, you can learn a lot about people, just by watching how they punch those buttons. (Or not punch the buttons. A certain variety of human being apparently takes great satisfaction in ignoring both walk/don't walk signals and the buttons provided to manipulate them. Perhaps it is coincidence, but many of these people don't look like the sort of person you'd like to have living next door or working at the same place as yourself.)

I realize that not everywhere is as 'unsophisticated' as here when it comes to aiding and trying to control pedestrians. Many years ago, when I was in Japan, one of my hostesses and I were walking around and came to a large, very busy, multi-laned intersection. When it was time for pedestrians to cross, music blared at the appropriate corners. My hostess explained that it was to make it easier for blind people to know where to go. That was fine as far as that went, but, as I recall, the music selection was "If a body meet a body, coming through the rye, and a body kiss a body, need a body cry?" Somehow it seemed a teeny bit incongruous. Delightful. But strange.

Around here, call us silly, but it's considered good manners to offer a person our arm if she looks like she needs help finding her way from one corner to the other. It's a bit old-fashioned and low tech, but we like it. Blaring music from street corners would just annoy people, I think. It's a quiet town, on the whole.

Then there's England, which apparently takes directing pedestrian/vehicle inter-mixing quite seriously. Katherine at K's Cafe has a primer on zebras, pelicans, puffins and toucans -- not the animals, but the various kinds of pedestrian crossings by the same name.

So, if I came to your town, what would I find?

Update: Thanks to Barb's comment, I have now been introduced to the term Jughandle. I've driven on them before, but had no idea they were called that.


Barb, sfo said...

My town is bisected by a state highway. So here, you would find JUGHANDLES. Ick. I figure I waste about 5 minutes a day, during the school year, in jughandles and next year with the kids in 2 different schools it will triple.

Kathryn Judson said...

Barb, Actually, my town is intersected by two state highways, which double as our main streets. The stoplight stands guard over where they intersect. But, of course, this is the middle of Oregon we're talking about: mountains, forests, farms - and towns that are considered big if they have almost two thousand people in them. :)

Barb, sfo said...

I live in the polar opposite place from yours--New Jersey! Not only does my highway have jughandles, it has "Jersey Barriers" which are those 2 1/2-foot-tall "walls" built to separate the opposing directions of highways. SO scenic & beautiful, you know.