The Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best-laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men, / Gang aft aglay.” The language requires a bit of interpretation, but the statement is clear. The best of intentions can—and often does—go wrong. Last weekend, I saw first-hand.
Saturday, Carolyn and I took a post-lunch walk out Lake Street west towards the Palace of the Legion of Honor 1.7 miles away. At Sea Cliff, where mansions overlook the Golden Gate and Pacific, the stroll goes uphill to the fountain in front of the Palace. You enjoy spectacular views and get a nice workout. What could go wrong?
Plenty. A few days earlier, San Francisco closed tree-lined, bike-laned Lake Street to through traffic. No hardship there. People in the neighborhood can drive California Street a block south and traffic, while increasing, is still light.
Understandably, the concept of closed city streets is popular. People can walk, run and bike free from motorized impediments. In a non-COVID-19 world, that’s awesome.
In a situation calling for social distancing, that’s foolish.
The policy backfired because the crowd on Lake Street was way larger than any I’ve seen since San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order took effect on March 16. I walk three times a day, every day. Heading west on Lake isn’t my only route, but I take it at least daily—and at different times. My sense of the volume of people using the street is pretty reliable.
The problem? Keeping at least six feet from someone requires what I call slalom walking. No way can you just set out in any direction and walk in a straight line. Some sidewalks are too narrow or blocked. On wide sidewalks—which describes most in my neighborhood—people often stroll two or three abreast even when they see others coming. Staying to the right and briefly walking single-file seems too much bother. Also, most people don’t wear masks. So you duck out into the bike lane or into the street.
This poses unanticipated dangers. Counterintuitively, until the street opens to traffic, pedestrian safety is severely compromised.
Hordes of cyclists—no masks, understandably—speed along in both directions. Runners—no masks—whiz by. I ran for decades, so it pains me to say that most cyclists and runners refuse to give an inch, won’t swerve under any circumstances except for an oncoming vehicle. But closure restricts vehicles.
Try keeping your distance, and you take your life in your hands. The normally carefree route, even during the pandemic, has become an obstacle course. Accidents are waiting to happen while opportunities for people to spread the virus to others have increased—unless we’ve been misinformed about social distancing.
Playing it safe, Carolyn and I cut over to California Street. We encountered few walkers and, when necessary, went out into the street. Traffic was light. We made it up to the Palace and back.
Good intentions are insufficient. Theory goes just so far. While weekdays are calmer, weeknights are crowding up. Devil’s advocacy and observation should guide—and alter—our decisions. We’ll have many to make in the weeks, months and years going forward.
I suggest hanging the quote from Robert Burns in every home and municipal office in the nation. As a bonus, we’ll learn a bit of Scots.
Today marks the 75th anniversary of the Allies’ victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two. I could write volumes. I’ll restrict myself to two heartfelt words to all those who fought in Europe and the Pacific, and slogged through on the home front: Thank you!
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