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Walk. Don't Walk

An edited version appeared in Men's Style, Winter 2010

I don’t know if you’ve been to Melbourne lately, but this city is a jaywalker’s paradise. Technically it’s illegal, but in reality, pedestrians rule the roads. Just loitering at the edge of the footpath will prompt oncoming drivers to give you an encouraging wave. Stepping out?  Prepare to bask in the glorious sound of screeching brakes as every vehicle within a 100 metre radius skids to a halt.

This poses problems for any Melburnians foolhardy enough to leave city limits and travel to foreign lands, like Sydney. Last time I was in Sydney I made several ill-thought out attempts to cross the road and was hooted, yelled, and gesticulated back onto the pavement. One kindly older gentleman spoke very slowly and clearly as he told me, ‘We do things differently in the city, love’ and shooed me in the direction of the pedestrian crossing.

Ah yes, the pedestrian crossing; an oasis in the urban nomad’s desert. Here in arty Melbourne we emphasise form over function, and thus the pedestrian crossing’s practical purpose as a place where zebra’s can safely cross the road has been superseded by its potential as a piece of public art. So minimalist! So symbolic! So...stripy!

Synonyms for pedestrian include banal, boring, commonplace, and mundane. Antonyms are far more exciting: different, exceptional, extraordinary, interesting. Monty Python’s Flying Circus was onto something with its Ministry of Silly Walks. This is the vibe I’m going for when I step out into oncoming traffic; I’m trying to jazz it up a little.

It’s also possible that we are disdainful of the ordinariness implied by a pedestrian crossing. Melbourne has, after all, been appointed a UNESCO City of Literature. The second. In the world. Ever. It is unlikely, then, that the notion of crossing the road in a pedestrian fashion will appeal to our well dressed and widely read residents.

Even bonnie Prince Charlie, champion of neo-traditionalism, is for us. "The whole of the 20th century has put the car at the centre. By putting the pedestrian first, you create these liveable places I think, with more attraction and interest and character ... liveability."

Liveability, pah! Twenty-two per cent of pedestrian-related injuries result in lengthy stays in hospital. And then there are the deaths: 15% of the Victorian road toll. Dodging cars is not for the faint of heart. A friend of mine plugged in his headphones and stepped out into the street a couple of years ago, and was promptly mowed down by a tram. He walked away, but can no longer stomach listening to Ne-Yo. Not all bad, then.

I also saw a young woman sent flying by a bicycle as she wove her way through parked cars in central London back in the early noughties. The lycra bandit that mowed her down bounced happily off the asphalt, checked she was still breathing then got back on his bike, while the traffic dodger – cunningly disguised as an attractive, suited up office chick - crawled to the curb on bleeding hands and knees, trying valiantly not to cry.

The Victorian Police last made a serious attempt to crack down on the jaywalking tendencies of fleet footed Melburnites in July 2009 with operation Don’t Do Your Dash, HQ tells me, when 724 infringement notices were issued. At $58 a pop for most transgressions including alighting from a moving vehicle, disobeying the traffic lights or failing to give way when crossing a bicycle path and $204 for the big one - failing to obey a no pedestrian sign - that’s a lot of donuts.

The old bloke in Sydney was onto something. Proceed with caution, jaywalkers.