No pedestrians in the universe hate to wait at crosswalks more than pedestrians in San Francisco do. This dislike is so complete that if San Francisco were its own country, as 79% of the U.S. population almost certainly wishes it were, the national pastime would probably be something called “making the light.”

If you stand near a crosswalk for a few hours it is not unlikely that you will observe groups of seemingly sane people begin their approach at a leisurely pace only to break into a sprint as they step off the curb, with one of them usually screaming, “We can make it!” as they fly past you. San Franciscans know by heart which street crossings give you a 12-second countdown, a 17-second countdown, or the holy grail of pedestrian crossing signs: the 30-second countdown, and visitors will soon learn that there’s not a lot a San Franciscan can’t do in half a minute.

Some San Franciscans are so finely trained in crosswalking that they can go whole days without ever seeing a red hand. So calibrated are they to the rhythm of the lights that they can actually tell you how many seconds are left on every pedestrian crossing signal in all of San Francisco, and if they are truly an Olympic caliber crosser, the entire Bay Area.

This information could save your life in a city where drivers will run you down faster than crazed Midwesterners at Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving, and if you’ve ever seen Braveheart you still have absolutely no idea what San Franciscans have to go through just to go to work.

Crosswalking has become such an important part of the identity of San Franciscans that knowing your “count” or how long it takes you to cross a street, has replaced where you live on the barometer of social hierarchy. Some people can cross the intersection at Church and Market in 17 seconds and some people just can’t. There are even rumors that the new club “12 and Under” that opened last week in SoMA is checking counts at the door and not admitting anyone whose number is over 12. Do you know yours?

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  • C.

    Well, I enjoyed this and it brings up lots of experiences, reflections and opinions for me. I think this topic gets to the heart of what life in San Francisco is really like.

    First, the “making the light” thing seems to be connected with and even driven by another San Francisco pedestrian behavior pattern that could be described as “exhibiting fear or indifference of crossing, or hesitancy or inability to cross, AGAINST the light”. This latter pattern seems absent in East Coast cities such as New York and Boston. There, while pedestrians may exercise a tuned-in and discerning judgment in crossing against the light, it definitely happens (and appears to be the norm when confronted with a no-crossing sign and an even slight opening to cross). I have even frequently seen “pedestrian mob rule” behavior patterns in which a sufficient gathered mass of pedestrians takes control of an intersection, regardless of traffic light states and honking of drivers, blocking auto traffic until the mass dissipates below a level sufficient for control. This usually requires intersections where there cannot be sufficient auto mass or speed to deter pedestrians – such as a point where many narrow streets converge at a roundabout or corner with a park or other pedestrian hangout – but it does happen. Friends from those East Coast cities who visit often express dismay at the not-crossing behavior. (But hey, they came here to chill anyway.)

    Second, the “not crossing against the light” thing here seems to have to do with different normal stress levels, objectives and kinds of attunement to environment than are prevalent in East Coast cities. There, people operate with high stress, based on objectives of effectively and efficiently accomplishing practical goals, and attune to detailed material and dynamic features of their environments that will help them to accomplish those goals. There is also normal risk tolerance that is high, supported by the high stress tolerance. Here, people generally seem to prefer (even when in conflict with practical reality) to operate with low stress or low exhibited stress, based on objectives of enjoying life or being in a personal groove, and attune to enjoyment-oriented or groovy aspects of their environment. There is also normal risk tolerance that is low. So people generally don’t want to have to deal with traffic in crossing against the light, unless it’s really fun and easy. So this would be when there is really no traffic, or in places and at times when the drivers are cool with it. The attunement here would be to those easy traffic conditions and to cool drivers. This sometimes results in “stupid crossing against the light” – rare on the East Coast, due to higher risk – when instead of attunement there is insistent presumption something along the lines of, “because I am cool, it is cool for me to cross against the light now”. Ironically, such presumption seems basically not unlike the presumption of high-end SUV drivers who roll through pedestrian crossings while talking on cellphones; just a different kind of cool and a similar lack of attunement, based on unrealistic presumption.

    Finally, a few interesting corollaries of this theory of “making the light” versus “not making the light”.

    So far as “calibrating to the rhthym of the lights” – dude, it is possible! (even if it were written with a bit of sarcasm) — but seems to require full acceptance and diligent practice of the SF style of attunement. This includes “sync-ing” oneself (being “in integrity”, or honoring the deities of traffic) by NOT crossing against the light. So, the very pedestrian behavior that New Yorkers and Bostonites may regard as impeding effectiveness is actually what makes San Franciscans able to accomplish, on a subtler, more powerful level.

    So far as what San Francisco pedestrians have to deal with in traffic situations:
    We’ve already mentioned the effects of mere presumption of attunement and coolness (which perhaps go along with some class-identified sense of righteousness (pedestrians) or privilege (SUV drivers)), and this applies in certain traffic situations, generally still the more leisurely or daily-routine-type ones.
    The situations in which the SF approach of stress tolerance, life objectives and attunement doesn’t work (or is at least strained) result in the most aggressive displays of driver behavior and the riskiest conditions – like during commute time downtown. Here, the actual stress of commuting and having to get places on time in practical reality bursts through the preference or presumption of a lifestyle with low-stress, enjoyment-oriented objectives, and attunement to enjoyable aspects of environment. It’s actually even worse than in New York, where people are at least dealing with practical reality directly through their normal approach, and not dealing with their psychological conflicts over having to deal with reality, and dealing with reality more indirectly or less fully due to them. Here, there are not only aggressive drivers, there are clueless, out-of-control aggressive drivers, not tuned in to their environment and to the possible effects of their driving, operating like a kind of driving volcano rather than an effectively if aggressively driven vehicle.

    Well, that was a lot of discussion — and I haven’t even had my excellent artisinally-roasted coffee this morning! Good thing I didn’t start discussing the many times I’ve almost been run over by a MUNI bus when crossing WITH the light (once I was literally saved by a stranger who tugged me back toward the curb by my jacket collar).

    Happy strolling.

  • Alex Barkett

    my god.

  • Garrett

    Dude serious, that’s the biggest comment I’ve seen in all my days….in other news, at least we wait for the little man to light up. I’m temporarily living in Shanghai now and it seems like more people cross the street when it’s red than green. It’s like frogger, but real! 😀 But seriously it pisses me off.