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Red light, green light

Why no one is paying attention to traffic signals

By Joseph P. Kahn
Globe Staff / March 12, 2011

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At the intersection of Longwood and Brookline avenues one recent morning, about 50 pedestrians crossed Longwood Avenue against a glowing don’t-walk sign in the space of an hour. A few pushed baby carriages.

The sign might as well have read, “OK, just a suggestion.’’

Meanwhile, a handful of jaywalkers traversed Brookline Avenue, traffic whizzing by as they hurried across four lanes of potential vehicular mayhem. Three bicyclists, one of them helmetless, wove their way through pedestrians who had the right of way. And two dozen motorists barely slowed before turning right on a red light, ignoring the “No Turn on Red’’ sign.

The collective rush, seen in the context of Mayor Thomas Menino’s proposal to stiffen penalties for bicyclists who run red lights, amounted to what might be called the Boston Red Light Olympics. Maneuvers included the bold dash, the mid-lane hesitation, the purposeful stride, the head-down-and-pedal mode, the I’m-driving-here glare, the phone-glued-to-ear look of utter distraction.

Nowhere was there (a) any visible sign of guilt or apprehension or (b) a cop stopping and ticketing violators, motorized or otherwise. The good news? No collisions or accidents occurred, not even a reasonably close call.

But what is it about Bostonians that has us hurrying through the red zone in such large numbers? Are we that impatient to get to the other side? That antsy, even discourteous by nature, as our rudeness ranking (No. 6) in Travel & Leisure magazine’s appraisal of US cities suggests?

“I jaywalk all the time around here. But then the light doesn’t really give you that much time,’’ said one unapologetic jaywalker, Mike Krigman, who works at a nearby medical facility. His amble across Longwood may not have been legal, but his point was legitimate: The walk signal here lasts no more than 20 seconds, not much time to get from sidewalk to sidewalk, especially for the elderly or infirm.

“It’s really the same anywhere in the city, though,’’ added Krigman, expressing a widely held opinion regarding how Bostonians view — and often ignore — red lights and don’t-walk signs in going about their daily business.

Rich Rana, a radiology resident at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, also admitted to walking against the light in this neighborhood. Originally from Chicago, he said motorists and pedestrians back home “follow the rules way more’’ than they do here. “There’s a lot more tension between pedestrians and drivers in Boston.’’

The mayor’s proposal, which would reclassify bicycles as vehicles and increase fines from $20 to as much as $150 for running a red light, doesn’t sit well with many cyclists. They complain that targeting one group of violators would give others a free pass.

On the Boston Biker website, one commenter claimed to have broken three ribs after running into a pedestrian who stepped out from between two parked cars — and who was not cited for causing the accident. Another wrote, “Jaywalking rules were only invented so cars could go as fast as they want . . . Is that the kind of city we want?’’

Jaywalking carries a mere $1 fine for first offenders — one reason, perhaps, why a jaywalking ticket is as rare around Boston as a cow grazing in the Public Garden.

“Nobody is following the law — pedestrians, cyclists, or motorists,’’ says Shane Jordan, who runs Boston Biker. “It’s in the city’s culture. Everyone here is sort of crazy, so you get yelled at if you’re the only one obeying the rules.’’

David Watson of MassBike, a cyclists’ advocacy group, says increasing fines for careless bikers is premature at best, since a law allowing police to ticket cyclists who violate traffic laws only went into effect last month. “You have to wonder what problem you’re trying to solve’’ with stiffened penalties, he said, emphasizing that MassBike urges all cyclists to follow existing laws.

Amen to that, says Boston Police Department Superintendent William Evans. Public education, not ticket writing, he says, is the biggest weapon the city has to steer Boston’s red-light culture in a more responsible direction. “We don’t want to give [bikers] citations, because frankly most haven’t been aware of the rules,’’ he said.

Evans did concede, however, that it’s rare for pedestrians to be cited for jaywalking. This despite smartphones, iPods, and other devices distracting pedestrians more than ever, creating more potential accidents. The other day, Evans said, a woman walking with her head down stepped directly in front of his cruiser. He slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting her but did not ticket her.

Nobody, including Evans and Nicole Freedman, who directs the city’s Boston Bikes program, is clear on what might happen to the proposal to punish cyclists more harshly. As matters stand, Boston fines pedestrian and cyclist violators lightly compared to other cities. While Menino’s bill has acquired a legislative sponsor, state Representative Angelo Scaccia, it has yet to be moved to a committee, according to the mayor’s office.

“Our number one goal is to be as safe a city as possible, but we can always improve on that,’’ Freedman said. For all the talk of Bostonians taking red lights as mere suggestions, she said, the city ranks highly in pedestrian and cyclist safety, based on statistics compiled by the Alliance for Biking and Walking, a national advocacy organization.

Some cities, such as Los Angeles, have a reputation for taking jaywalking much more seriously, and others, such as Boulder, Colo., are known for cultivating a far friendlier relationship between motorists and cyclists. Freedman says her office fields plenty of calls from pedestrians complaining about bikers, bikers venting about motorists, and motorists ticked off at everybody.

To Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us),’’ obeying traffic rules is largely situational, no matter the city or fine structure. Jaywalking might occur twice as often at one intersection as another, for instance, if the don’t-walk sign lasts twice as long.

Obeying is also based on individual risk assessment, he says. People ask themselves: Is it hard to cross here? How much time do I have? At an intersection where substantially more pedestrians than cars are crossing, Vanderbilt says, walkers may feel more emboldened to take their chances, red light or green.

“I’d argue for keeping it all in perspective, and for greater enforcement’’ of existing laws, he said. Speaking from New York, which instituted its own recent crackdown on light-running cyclists, he added: “In terms of public health, going after cyclists and pedestrians doesn’t seem like a good course of action.’’

So, can everyone here get along? Or come spring, will warmer weather put a spring in everyone’s step — possibly giving them even more incentive to hurry along and not wait for the green light?

Increased awareness of the rules could help. Along hospital row the other day, Beth Israel employee Sheila Thomas seemed surprised when, after crossing Longwood Avenue against the light, she was stopped by a reporter. Was she comfortable with the way so many pedestrians ignore that don’t-walk sign she’d just cruised through? No, said Thomas, she wasn’t. In fact, she said, there ought to be a law against such behavior, enforced by the police.

Told there is such a law and a fine for breaking it, Thomas guessed such a ticket might be $50.

“A dollar?’’ she said, her eyes widening. “Get out!’’

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.