Every society does irrational things unthinkingly, holding them dear and stubbornly refusing to change. When they are big things, like sending armies off to war or letting the defenseless suffer at home, a slap on the wrist is not enough: those societies should probably be overthrown, upturned and forced to start again.
Little stuff, however, which can be senseless just the same, we mostly just put up with. Maybe it’s so petty it doesn’t even enter the conscious realm, or so small that even though it bugs us we choose not to mention it. But if we leave these things alone long enough, they sediment into deep-lying layers of the asinine, which end up working as a kind of heritage: protected sites no one dare touch or change.
And here’s a Barcelona example: why do we have to run?
I’m not talking about running because we want to, which thousands do every day, in parks, along the beach or up high along the legendary Carretera de les Aigües. That sort of running is perfectly sane. You train, it gives you pleasure, and you can quit whenever you want.
I’m talking about idiotic runs: the little sprints we are all forced to make when wandering Barcelona’s streets. Instead of allowing us a leisurely stroll, every pedestrian is forced to run, simply because this city cannot figure out how to properly time crosswalk lights.
The principle is easy enough. First, some city engineer measures the road width. Then, you take the average walking speed, and program the lights. If normal folk cover 3.5-4 feet a second, the elderly might only cover 3, just under a metre. This is the time you need to cross the road, walking at your normal pace.
You start crossing and they start flashing, as if they were on a motion sensor. Then they turn to perilous red and you start to fret. Car engines start to rev, your adrenaline surges.
Everyone waiting for the light should have enough time to cross easily before the lights turn. The problem starts with those who arrive at a crosswalk “late”. What should happen is that everyone who crosses on green, whenever they leave, will be able to keep their same pace all the way the other side, safe from oncoming vehicles. When the light starts flashing, that’s the signal that if you haven’t already started, you should wait for the next one.
In Barcelona, it doesn’t work this way. You start crossing and they start flashing, as if they were on a motion sensor. Then they turn to perilous red and you start to fret. Car engines start to rev, your adrenaline surges. You frantically look at oncoming traffic lights and see they’ve turned green; here they come and you are still in the intersection. So you quicken the pace, you enliven the gait. You start to whiz and tear; you hit the gas, wide-open throttle. You are on foot, but are thinking like a driver. And you end up sprinting to the finish line, the sidewalk on the other side.
A few years ago, someone wrote a letter to the editor of La Vanguardia about this, arguing that everywhere in the world they used a sane system, and why didn’t Barcelona? A city official, reading from some esoteric memorandum, politely responded it was safer our way, though I didn’t quite catch the argument. Something about keeping traffic moving, like it or not. And that was that.
What is irksome is how Barcelona has worked so hard to make pedestrians feel important. Most of the old quarter was made carless years ago, and many neighbourhoods have followed suit. There are messages written on busy streets, reminding pedestrians to not get run over. This city hall is proudly promoting their Poblenou super-block, a massive anti-car closure done most weekends.
You would think they really cared, that pedestrians matter. You’d suppose city hall gets no pleasure from having to scrape squashed humans off the road. It’d be nice to believe them, but we can’t. Not until they tell us why Barcelona’s pedestrians have to run, and not until they fix things so we don’t unless we want to.