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Washington and Boston: Dullness versus Exhiliration

By Steven V. Roberts

WASHINGTON, D.C.--A New Yorker new to Washington notices one thing almost immediately: the extraordinary deference local pedestrians pay to passing motorists. They actually stand patiently--on the curb--while a red light flashes its warning. When it turns green in their direction, and all vehicles grind obediently to a halt, Washingtonians finally plod across the street. No muss, no fuss, no howling drivers, no bruised pedestrians, no frantic policemen. And no fun.

There is something missing in this way of life. The walker in Washington is deprived of that sense of high adventure, that sense of living life with the strange intensity known only by the man whose next step may be his last. A spark has died, a certain vibrant note no longer sounds.

One is hard-pressed to explain the Washingtonian's meekness in the face of the most faceless manifestation of our legal system. One possible explanation is that, in the nation's capital, respect for legality is natural.

Bureaucracy and Monsters

Though more likely, most local residents have tangled so often with governmental bureaucracy that they feel it's ridiculous to challenge the inscrutable omniscience of the red-and green-eyed monsters. The police are notoriously generous with jay-walking tickets.

In New York, traffic lights are useless mechanisms, except when they glance off wet pavement on rainy nights, and spear the darkness with electric colors. Then they are appreciated by artists or other wandering aesthetes. But they have nothing to do with traffic.

In New York, cabs and cart-pushers, messengers and millionaires, trucks and trams and lady shoppers dash madly for the intersection when an opening appears. Usually they make it, sometimes they don't. But that's precisely the point. In Washington you know you're going to make it, so why even try? It's more exciting to pilot a paddle-boat on the Tidal Basin and watch the cherry trees.

And yet even New York--where cabs actually nudge over-zealous walkers--and the walkers don't mind--does not provide the exhiliration born of sheer terror to be found by walker and driver alike in Boston.

Boston is an old city, and its streets are random by-ways first trod by Pilgrims' feet. They are narrow, crooked, totally unpredictable. And they often feed into insidious death-traps known as "squares."

"Squares" come in all sizes and shapes. However, they have in common the fact that no rules whatsoever govern the flow of traffic As many as ten streets simultaneously spew cars and people at odd angles into these open areas, and the closest thing to navigating a square in Boston is driving around in an open field. Pedestrians close their eyes and sprint across. None of the dulling certitude of Washington here. None of the blandness of our push-button society. It's man against nature, or what passes for nature these days--the motor car.

Anywhere But Down

But that's not the whole story. When the solons of the Hub get around to erecting traffic lights, they are most likely only to aggravate the rapidly deteriorating situation It is still beyond man's poor powers to decipher the complex series of messages meant to be conveyed by the bewildering configurations of red lights, green lights, arrows, and neon signs native to Boston.

One common combination is a red light surrounded by three green arrows. The best interpretation offered so far is that one is permitted to go anywhere but down. And in some areas of Boston that is a viable alternative.

Streets meticulously ruled by an expert surveyor, law-abiding pedestrians and motorists, and lucid traffic signals all have their charms. Yet whatever the reason, the local conception of the traffic laws leaves Washington a less vital city.

Mr. Roberts, a former editor of the CRIMSON, spent four years dodging cars in Boston before becoming traffic editor for the Washington bureau of the New York TIMES.

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