Taking Turns at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum (and Everywhere Else)

July 6, 2015

On a beautiful fall afternoon last year, my wife and I visited the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. It’s a great place and absolutely worth the trip if you have the chance. We were not alone in our assessment of the place’s merit. Hundreds of people were there that day enjoying the scenery and getting some exercise.

Not surprisingly, this led to some congestion getting in and out of the park, mostly for vehicles. Part of this is because the park allows you to take driving tours as opposed to walking it, a justifiable bit of deference to those who are unable to handle the rigors of walking the trails. But it means there are a couple of unavoidable points where pedestrians must cross the roadway in front of a steady flow of automobiles.

The gold was SO bright. It kinda felt like a fairytale land or something.

The gold was SO bright. It kinda felt like a fairytale land or something.

As we exited the park, we crossed one of these intersections while a small line of cars waited patiently. I think the serenity of the surroundings may have aided in abating the frustration that often seems to afflict drivers waiting for large groups of pedestrians to get through an intersection. Opposite us, on their way into the park, a father held his son’s hand and kept him back from crossing the intersection.

This was not done out of simple concern for his safety, a justifiable reason to be sure and one I’m sure was a factor. Instead, I heard him explain that they should stop and let the cars take a turn for a while so they didn’t have to keep waiting. He was using this as an opportunity to teach his son some simple and valuable lessons. Taking turns is good. Sharing — both in space and time — is the right thing to do. Deferring to others is both kind and generous. It seemed to me he was being an unequivocally good father in that moment.

And I disagreed with it. Here’s why.

Important Disclaimer

This is not intended as a parenting screed. That way lies madness. For one, I’m unqualified. I have no children, so no one wants to hear my philosophies on child rearing. Would anyone really want that even if I did have kids?  This is more about a philosophical approach to the world. As I said above, I think the lessons the father was trying to teach were good ones — ones I support fully and would teach to tiny humans if I ever have any.

Okay, Carry On

I just wouldn’t have used that opportunity to do it. Instead, I looked at that pedestrian crossing as one of the relatively few places where we give people on foot an advantage. I might point out that cars can travel much, much faster than people on foot, and that their occupants are sitting comfortably in a climate controlled setting so waiting a bit isn’t a big deal. I would also emphasize that cars are much more dangerous to those walking than the other way around, and that the safest car is one that’s not moving. That’s why we have laws that say when there’s an intersection, whether with traffic signals, striped or not, cars must stop and wait for people to cross. I’d also say that when we’re back in our car, it will be our turn to wait. There’s still a lesson in taking turns, just a slightly different one.

As I looked once more at the pathways in the arboretum via Google Maps, it seems there are some relatively easy ways the number of intersections could be further minimized. In an ideal world, we’d spend the money to create truly separate paths for cars and people to ensure the risk of collision is even lower than it already is. Most of the problems between pedestrians and cars are design problems, after all. But it’s not an ideal world, and I’ll live with the fact that at least the law says we must yield pedestrians the right of way.

In the grand scheme of things, the man teaching his son to wait for the cars was a small moment, one not worth splitting hairs over. But lots of small moments add up over time and shape how we collectively see the world. I’ve said before that as someone who walks almost everywhere all the time, cars are by far the scariest part of living where I do. We have over 4,700 pedestrian fatalities a year in this country, a number I think is unacceptably high for something we have much more control over than we are often willing to admit. Any time we get better at deferring to those on foot is an opportunity to drive that number down.

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