Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Being a Pedestrian in Newport

It's not easy being a pedestrian in Newport, RI. Part of the problem is that we're a tourist resort, and visitors from elsewhere seem to have that typical tourist attitude that local traffic laws don't apply to them because they're not from here (even if the same law applies in their home states). But that's not the only problem, and there are many ways a person walking around this town can end up being a target. I want to cover three particular issues in this essay.

The first issue is the thing with crosswalks, and that is a tourist issue. It seems that people visiting from outside Rhode Island think that because they're driving a vehicle that outweighs the human body they have the unquestioned right-of-way, despite the prevalence of signs like the one pictured to the left. The chief offenders seem to be Massachusetts drivers; drivers from other "foreign" states also violate the "stop at the crosswalk" law, but not as universally as Massachusetts drivers. In fact, Massachusetts drivers tend to ignore a wide range of Rhode Island traffic laws with impunity and are seen to be such a nuisance on our roads that they're known as "Massholes" from Little Compton to Chepachet and Westerly to Woonsocket. [Note: If there are any Massachusetts residents reading this who are offended, don't take it up with me; have a talk with your fellow citizens who seem to think they have a right to come down here to RI to act like idiots on the road.]

But as far as crosswalks go, out-of-state drivers (MA drivers especially) seem to think they're just meaningless painted decorations on the road, and any pedestrians walking on them are art lovers who have gotten carried away with their admiration and are in the way of people with places to go and things to see. They lean out their windows and yell, they lean on their horns, they flip you the bird... I even had a guy (wouldn't you know it, MA plates on the car!) swerve around me, beeping and screaming at me to get out of the road, in the crosswalk in front of the police station on Broadway. I got the satisfaction of watching him get busted on that one!

Another issue is roadside puddles and the urge in people with IQs less than 75 (how did they get a driver's license in the first place?) to drive through them to douse any hapless bystanders. This isn't a tourist issue, this is purely a local one. If you're ever in Newport and are walking near any low-lying areas where rain or snow-melt settle to create miniature lakes, keep an eye out for old, sagging cars or pick-ups full of kids who look like candidates for Jerry Springer's studio audience, because if you see one of those you're about to get soaked. And it's not an unavoidable accident; you can see them swerve out of their current path to deliberately hit the puddle, and you can hear the hilarity in the car as they pass you by. And believe me, if they get busted (and yes, it's a fineable offense; it's called "operating a vehicle in a reckless manner") they always try to claim it was an accident and they didn't know there was a small inland sea there. Yeah, right!

But by far the clearest danger to pedestrians comes in Winter. It's a sad fact that large segments of the population of Newport don't clear the sidewalk in front of their homes after a snow. It's not universal throughout town; the main commercial drags are easy to walk through afterwards, as are some of the older ethnic neighborhoods (the Irish, Portuguese, and Italian enclaves in town). But surprise, surprise! It's the ritzier neighborhoods of the moneyed WASPs and the yuppie enclaves in town who never, ever shovel or use a snow-blower. In the WASP neighborhoods they plow out their driveways so their cars can get out, but the sidewalk remains covered. And in town in the yuppie enclaves you can see the path cleared from the front door to their SUV, but the rest of the sidewalk remains untouched. It's as if their money exempts them from civic responsibility.

The one that really cracks me up is a house on the corner of two main drags in one of the WASPier neighborhoods. The black Lexus SUV that's parked in the driveway had a McCain/Palin bumper sticker during the last election, and its predecessor (a Saab stationwagon) had Bush/Cheney bumper stickers in the two previous elections. And the sidewalk in front of their house is never cleared of snow; they just clear the driveway. There have been times when I've wanted to knock on the door and ask if membership in the Republican Party engenders a laissez faire attitude toward civic responsibilty, or if it's the pre-existing attitude that leads to membership in the party.

In any event, walking around Newport in the aftermath of a snowfall can be a tricky proposition; you spend as much time walking out in the street because the sidewalk's impassable as you do walking off the street on a cleared sidewalk. And when the road is a busy one and slippery on its own account, that uncleared sidewalk enters the realm of being a public safety issue. In fact, there is a municipal ordinance that states that the sidewalk in front of your house needs to be cleared and passable within 48 hours of the end of the snowfall, and failure to comply results in a fine. I really wish the city would start to enforce that one; given the amount of uncleared walks I encountered after this last storm, the city could collect enough money to lower the property tax rate!

So there you have it, the perils of being a pedestrian in Newport, RI. Pass at your own risk!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger


  1. I'm afraid that these "performance deficits" exist across large swaths of the country, Roy. We have a very localized disdain for drivers from Naperville, Illinois, an intensely "yuppified" community about 15 miles from here, where "red" means "I'll stop twice next time," and the biggest SUV wins.

    I've never thought of Palin Republicanism as a pre-existing condition, but I think it is a concept with some traction.

    Thanks for this!

    Dave A.

  2. We call them 'zebra' crossings here and generally they're well respected although during my travels overseas, I can say that there are many countries who just ignore them. Try crossing the road in Bangkok or Germany and you'll be collected by a tuc-tuc or a BMW in a heartbeat.

    Interesting that your selfish neighbours are republicans. It sort of goes with the territory. Those who don't want any form of socialised services and feel they can 'look after their own' seems to be a very selfish philosophy to me. Basically because they don't look after their own, just themselves.

  3. What!? go to Northampton, MA, and you will see a sea of pedestrians lapping back and forth.

    However, Tennessee has yet to understand the rights of the walker. We have Walk signs, yet Right on Red. Go figure.

  4. Some places treat pedestrians better than others. I think they're pretty good in this area and I know they are at Johnson Space Center, but don't try to cross at KSC. The road between parking and the Shuttle support buildings is like 45 mph and, unless you can't see anyone in any direction, you stand a good chance of getting run over.

    I'd been spoiled (where pedestrians always have the right of way and can back traffic up for some time, but I never cavil).

    Las Vegas, where I went to high school was bad, too. I don't think it was tourists there, though, since we were off the tourist path where I lived.

    No snow, though, either spot.

  5. I was out in the brutal cold today in Newport using those crosswalks. It was so cold that I just ran across the streets whether someone was coming or not. I love Newport, but today reminded me why I live in Florida. Can't wait to come back to visit during the summer!

  6. Hah!

    Maybe it's because I'm from the south and know how much the local police there like to bust out-of-towners, but I'm especially careful when I'm driving in someone else's town.

  7. Tread carefully, my dear! We don't want to lose you!

  8. ahh could it be that those conservatives believe that everyone has personal responsibility so if you are walking it is your responsibility to carry a shovel so you can dig your self out and not be a burden to others!

    Yup I am for ensuring the laws are followed and repercussions being levied if they are not.

    take care Roy!

  9. Tiptoe through those crosswalks!

    Warmest, woolly wishes for a wonderful 2010, Roy~!

  10. Haha, as a resident (and strict pedestrian) of your big city neighbor to the north, Boston, I commiserate with you regarding the lovely drivers that we have fup here. Generally I find it most helpful (and therapeutic) to just curse and flip the bird right back. Of course that's probably a pretty "Massholeish" approach to the situation >_>