Celebrate the Street

Mark Schlossberg had an essay published on these pages in May, lamenting the angry responses he receives from motorists as he commutes by bicycle. Spirited conversation followed, in the on-line comments section and in letters to the editor.

I read his guest editorial from my laptop, sitting on an Egyptian balcony that overlooked one of Cairo’s busy traffic circles. I watched cars, busses, bicycles, pedestrians, and donkey carts, all sharing the pavement below me. Reading about Eugene’s challenges to share the road rang a very distant bell for me.

We use lines and lights and laws to keep the uses of our pavement separated. Most of the world does not.

Driving is a blood sport across the Mediterranean region, but it’s extremely personal. “It all starts with eye contact,” my Egyptian host declared. He had to teach me how to cross the street. Some claim that people liberated from dictatorships have to be taught to value their freedom and dignity. I disagree. Where lines and lights and laws to not apply, crossing the street isn’t possible without them.

Every time you cross the street, you’re sharing the road. Comedian Jon Stewart used a common highway merge ramp as his everyday example of a civil society. We do it every day — “your turn, my turn” — without giving it much thought. But just because it’s automatic doesn’t mean it’s unimportant. Civility shouldn’t be taken for granted, but neither should the pavement itself.

When he was mayor of Springfield, Sid Leiken asked his public works department to calculate the value of the city-owned land that is set aside for streets. Former Springfield Public Works Director Dan Brown estimated their value at $400 million, held in common by all Springfield citizens for their transportation needs.

Think about that.

Eugene prides itself for its parkland and open spaces, set aside for all its citizens, regardless of age, income — or species. As wetland preservationist Steve Gordon or local physician John Allcott will tell you, butterflies need to be able to cross streets safely too.

And so we celebrate this Sunday’s bold experiment. For four hours, a downtown street will be open to traffic but closed to cars. The commons will be taken back from automobiles and reclaimed by the people who drive them. Fifth Avenue between Pearl Street and Blair Boulevard will be transformed into the parkland that it actually is.

You can learn all about it at http://www.smarttripseugene.com/sunday-streets.

You should come see it. “Sharing the road” — and so much else — will look different to you after that experience. If you’ve ever done Portland’s Bridgepedal, you’ve seen the jubilation rising when people get back what they already own.

Parades are wonderful and so are street fairs, but we naturally focus on the human Sunday’s celebration is about the street itself. We don’t stop to think this pavement beneath us is the same pavement that we drove on yesterday. That’s worth noticing, because there’s so much that we hold in common but never think about.

Inhale, exhale, your turn, my turn.

As UO Law professor Mary Wood reminds us, the cleanliness of our water and air is an asset we hold in common with everyone else, including those butterflies. Reconsidering our ownership of (and responsibility for) our planet might be too lofty a concept for a weekend rumination, so here’s an opportunity to start small, but think big.

Saunter from 5th Street Public Market to the Whiteaker neighborhood. Count the smiles. Check out the bike corral in front of Morning Glory Cafe near the train station. Consider the symbolism of a dozen bicycles parking on the street, in a space once reserved for a single car.

Freed from turn signals, wander aimlessly, because you can. Lines and lights and laws can do only so much for us. Become reacquainted with the incomparable power of eye contact. When you’re sharing the road, you’re sharing it with these people. They’ll look different to you when there are no windshields between you.

Our transportation pavement is probably worth more than a billion dollars, and it’s owned by all of us. We share so much in common — first and foremost, a future.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.