After more than two decades of living in the Tampa Bay area, riding its streets and roaming its sidewalks, I have come to this conclusion:
We do not know how to walk.
Once again and surprising no one who has tried to get around here, Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater just made the abysmal list of the deadliest metro areas in America to be a pedestrian.
Not that we needed another list to tell us this. We see a litany of such tragedies: In March, for example, when two teenage sisters were hit trying to cross busy Hillsborough Avenue to get to school and one of them died from her injuries. And more pedestrian deaths since.
Sometimes it's a driver's fault. Sometimes not. But the car will always prevail.
On a short 3-mile ride around Tampa this week, four times I saw people skittering across streets to avoid cars — one time, two adults and a young boy making a mad dash across Howard Avenue a half block from a marked crosswalk.
If you have walked around New York City, maybe you noticed pedestrians tend to have a healthy respect for cars careening past. Herds of people wait on street corners patiently (as patiently as New Yorkers do anything) for the walk signal. It's rhythm and flow, you stop, we go.
This week's numbers from the National Complete Streets Coalition found children, older people and minorities particularly vulnerable. Presumably because it's warm and we walk year round, Florida has the grim distinction of four of the five deadliest spots, and I bet you could guess them: Orlando/Kissimmee, Tampa/St. Petersburg/Clearwater, Jacksonville and Miami/Fort Lauderdale/Pompano Beach.
I called David Schwebel, a psychology professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has studied pedestrian behavior. He agreed that warm weather may be a Florida factor (places like Arizona and Las Vegas fare similarly) and added this: Warm places tend to be hubs for the homeless, who can bring issues of mental illness and substance abuse and who, by definition, walk around outside.
There are specific and differing cultures, the professor says, to how we cross streets — places where motorists are so attuned to walkers they hit the brakes when anyone nears a curb, and places where people jaywalk regularly.
Even though it's against the law. Even if these same people wouldn't dream of running a red light.
No doubt it's about how we're raised, what we see and what's considered acceptable. Once I drove up to a four-way stop in a Texas town at which all four motorists kept politely urging the others to go, no, I insist, you go. (I thought we'd never get out of there.) And I come from Miami, where "stop" seems to be considered a mere suggestion.
This week's numbers could help a push to get states to set goals about these deaths and make changes — like adding median islands for pedestrians where they make sense, for instance.
"But you also need to target the human behavior involved," the professor says. "A three-legged stool — engineering, drivers, pedestrians themselves."
We need change through education. Enforcement, too. Which is not to blame the victims of these tragedies, just to avoid so many more of them.