Brian McGrath is on a roll.
New Haven’s traffic director — some say “czar” — is talking about drivers who make illegal rights on red, pedestrians who cross mid-block, anyone who doesn’t play into his techno-totalitarian view of the orderly city. He finishes off his coffee and lights his second cigarette in half an hour. He lifts himself out of his chair and sits back down.
I ask about people who don’t want to wait for the walk sign. He gets to say what have to be four of his favorite words: “They’re breaking the law.”
I am sitting in his office in the basement of the New Haven Hall of Records because I want to talk about pedestrian crossings in New Haven. As a life-long resident of New York, where the signs always say walk when the light is red and, by and large, people wait for the walk signs, I don’t understand why New Haven’s lights seem to be timed to encourage pedestrians to jaywalk.
Since the only time pedestrians here have the walk sign is when there is no possibility that a car will come their way, they have to wait much longer for walks and end up jaywalking. Motorists get frustrated since pedestrians are in crosswalks when they shouldn’t be, and with frequent four-way reds traffic frequently grinds to a halt.
But McGrath doesn’t want to talk about how to fix this problem. His timing system has fixed a bigger problem: keeping cars away from pedestrians, who are hit 100 times a year in New Haven. But I try to tell him, as he already knows, the lights are only effective if people pays attention to the walk signs. But since they don’t, collisions are probably more likely than they would be with New York-style timing.
McGrath says the answer is enforcement.
“Pedestrians have never been trained how to walk,” he says.
If he had his way, cops would be giving $78 tickets for jaywalking. He knows that’s not going to happen, since they have better things to do. So he’s going to do the next best thing: put up some fences. The first one will go on the curb of Elm Street by Durfee Hall, so Yalies will have to walk to the corners to cross the street.
“Every single Yale alderman has said, ‘When are you going to get this highway out of the middle of our campus?'” McGrath says.
McGrath’s response is that the highway was there about 60 years before the college was. The pedestrians are going to have to move, not the cars. His first impulse was to build an underground walkway. He likes these. They’re all over Europe, where pedestrians and cars never share an intersection.
“Even in Romania there are no pedestrians in the intersections at all,” McGrath says.
So a few years back, New Haven’s own Ceausescu built one of these walkways in Wooster Square to bypass Interstate 95. He had to board it up after the neighborhood complained that it was becoming a crack den.
Putting a walkway under Elm Street would be too expensive. The city won’t pay for it and Yale won’t pay for it. That leaves McGrath only one option.
“We’re going to put up a beautiful fence,” McGrath says.
McGrath recognizes there’s going to be some opposition to his idea — which he said is being mulled over by an interdepartmental committee on problem intersections.
“The liberals will say, ‘Why are you picking on the students,'” he says. “There’s always someone who wants to protect their freedom of expression to get run over. These are the same people who want to complain that they’re getting run over.”
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