When I moved to Memphis, the first thing I noticed -- before I saw the poverty or The Pyramid -- was the number of pedestrians who jaywalked. I'd be cruising along and then, suddenly, someone would dart into the street without regard for speeding cars or traffic signals.
It was like something out of a driver's education movie. And it happened everywhere I drove. I was amazed.
Though my first impression of Memphis was that it was like that video game, Frogger, now I'm just as jaded about jaywalking as everyone else in this city. I still get a little surprised when I see people who have crossed three lanes of Union Avenue standing on the six inches of double yellow line like it's a desert oasis. Mostly, I just shrug and brake and swerve. But I think it's time to look at our city streets with fresh eyes. Case in point: the University of Memphis and Central Avenue.
Last week, the City Council voted to approve $3.2 million as part of a plan to alleviate pedestrian safety concerns on Central Avenue at the University of Memphis. Central will be lowered several feet and three pedestrian bridges will be added. Faced with various injuries and at least two deaths (one last month) of students as they cross from the parking lot north of Central to campus, the school has been searching for the answer for several years.
One unfamiliar with the situation might suggest adding crosswalks. The only problem is that they have those now; it's just that not everyone is using them. So more drastic measures have been discussed.
At the council's CIP budget committee meeting last week, one possible option was closing part of Central Avenue, moving traffic patterns away from the school, and incorporating current road space into the parking area. There were several access problems, and it was dismissed without discussion.
Another option was to reduce Central Avenue to two lanes and create a winding, snakelike thoroughfare, in order to reduce drivers' speeds. Another included building medians and fences to funnel students to the crosswalk.
The approved plan has some selling points: It will fix the law school's drainage issues and eliminate pedestrian/vehicular conflict. But do we really need a multimillion-dollar construction project to fix it?
Drainage issues notwithstanding, surely there's a simpler and more inexpensive way. Remember, the pedestrians we are protecting are adults, and college-educated adults, at that. They read Nietzsche. They study biomedical engineering.
U of M students are simply choosing to walk a straight line from car to class and back again, ignoring the crosswalk. Maybe theuniversity should get a crossing guard out there with a whistle and a little stop sign and make students use the crosswalk.
Unfortunately, the pedestrian problem is citywide. Council members were shown a picture of several people in mid-jay, some standing on a median waiting, others crossing without a care. U of M students? No, the pictures had been taken that very morning on Front Street. These were people going to the Federal Building or the Cook Convention Center or even City Hall itself.
One has to wonder: If lowering Central is the only way to keep walkers safe, should we look at lowering all the city's streets? There must be another way.
Laws against jaywalking are traditionally only enforced by police in small towns, but maybe it's time to start thinking small. n
Mary Cashiola is a Flyer staff writer.