The Boston Phoenix
June 22 - 29, 2000

[Out There]

The saunterers

I'll take rush-hour traffic over pedestrians any day

by Kris Frieswick

It's practically a national pastime to complain about how dangerous Boston drivers are, but believe me: you cannot know fear until you've ridden your bike around one of the sharp corners on the Charles River bike path to find yourself face to face with a phalanx of five Walkman-wearing college co-eds on rollerblades.

Even at the lame speed of 12 miles per hour, the first few seconds that elapse after this happens are typical near-death fare: the world slows down, every action seems to last minutes, you can hear the wind and your own heart beating. Your thoughts turn to loved ones and long-ago pets and that kid in third grade you were mean to. Eventually, your instincts kick in, and you initiate evasive maneuvers. You slam on your rear brake, you slide your butt as far back on the seat as possible, and you swerve off the path.

Meanwhile, the rollerbladers have also initiated their own unique brand of evasive maneuvers, which include screaming and grabbing one another's arms (thus creating what Sun-Tzu in The Art of War refers to as the "Impenetrable Wall of Stupidity"). This sends half the co-eds sprawling to the ground in a bloodied heap and the rest spinning like colorful sports-bra-wearing tops. Riding on the grass next to the path, you are able to avoid the pile and flying appendages, but who knows what further terror awaits?

Another day, another roll of the mortality dice on the Charles River bike path.

I love the bike path and all that it is meant to be: a place where pedestrians and others can recreate together away from the scourge of cars, exhaust, traffic, and all the bad things motorized vehicles represent. But after a year of commuting by bike on the path between Newton and Boston, I'll take my chances with the cars, thank you very much.

I have never seen a car stop dead in its tracks, jump up in the air, spin around, and land sideways directly in front of me. I have never seen a car swerve back and forth, back and forth, crossing lanes with total disregard for other vehicles. I have never seen a car stop and bend over directly in front of me so that it can tie its skates. I have never been clotheslined by a wildly gesticulating car.

I have almost been flattened by cars a couple of times, but my life has been threatened far more times on the bike path than on any rush-hour-clogged street. This is because most drivers, no matter how bad, still generally observe two basic rules: 1) remember that you're not alone out there, and 2) stay to the goddamn right unless you're passing. Based on my empirical research, it appears that fully half (1/2 ) of all people forget these rules when they are not behind the wheel of a car.

The bike path is not the only place where this problem is evident. The problem is societal and systemic. Try getting from point A to point B anywhere downtown around lunchtime -- or saunter-time, as I like to call it. Those who join you on the pavement break down into two big groups: people who are aware that there are other human beings on the planet, and people who are not.

After a year of intensive field research, during which I, like Jane Goodall, lived amidst my unwitting subjects, I have broken down the second group further into the following subgroups (which apply equally to pedestrians, in-line skaters, and, yes, even cyclists):

The saunterer: Nowhere to go, plenty of time to get there. Moves slower than a groggy two-year-old on a tricycle. Not infirm or elderly. Often seen with head tilted curiously to one side. Never looks both ways before crossing street. Believes his slow pace renders him invincible to impact injury. Impossible to pass on narrow sidewalks, due to oncoming pedestrians. If on a bike, the saunterer can usually be found at the head of a long line of honking traffic. Motto: "If I do not look at you, you cannot run me down."

The meanderer: Either unemployed, crazy, or a tourist. Attracted by bright shiny objects, clothing sales, or Freedom Trail markers. Head either in clouds or pointed down, following red line on pavement. Will swerve to chase all of above without notice. Blocks intersections. Wears large-brimmed hats and carries oversize canvas bags. Dangerous to pass under any conditions, due to unpredictable nature.

The flailer: If flailer is a pedestrian, probably wears a suit. Talks with hands, usually on cell phone. Prone to sudden stops, spins, foot-stamping, yelling, and random vehement gesturing. Effectively manages to block entire width of wide sidewalk single-handedly. If flailer is an in-line skater, use extreme caution when approaching, due to "unstable newbie" factor.

The commuter: Bent on one single-minded purpose, which is getting to work. Lacks self-preservation instinct. Believes entire world is in the way. Sees you only as bulky obstacle. Travels in ruler-straight line toward destination, regardless of whether there are sidewalks/pavement of any type provided. Fairly predictable if you know where that destination is.

The blockaders: Most often pedestrians, usually co-workers on their way to or from a big "send-off lunch." Three to 10 in number. Most onerous of all pedestrian species. Uses "safety in numbers" theory to walk with impunity through all intersections regardless of light cycle. Presence of blockaders usually necessitates crossing to other side of street.

I'll admit that I've fallen into one or more of these categories myself every now and again. But at least I know I'm doing it. For far too many of our fellow Bostonians, these categories are a way of life. They honestly aren't aware that there's anything wrong with walking down the yellow double line in the middle of Summer Street on a Friday at 5:30 p.m.

I would like to propose a citywide campaign. I'm calling on all people who are aware of the presence of other human beings to band together to help our less-aware citizens learn not just transportation etiquette, but the important common-sense skills that could save their lives. So next time you find yourself behind one of these hapless creatures, just move up real close behind him or her and yell at the top of your lungs, "You're not alone!"

Together, we can make a difference.

Kris Frieswick can be reached at

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