Character, caution and common sense | AspenTimes.com

Character, caution and common sense

Britta Gustafson
Then Again

As the last of the leaves blew off in the wind, I marveled at how there is something universally appealing about sunlight catching the dew, reflecting off of those bright yellow leaves. The colors of fall that sparkle and paint the landscape in hues of gold, rust and red can — at moments — take your breath away. And now we are ready for the snow, let it snow!

Having grown up in Snowmass, I fondly recall the sensation of returning home from a family vacation, rounding the turns of Brush Creek Road after dark when we would see the twinkling tiara of lights nestled snuggly in the mountain forests of Mount Baldy. Over the years, the lights have spread to include additional nodes and pockets of the mountainside and valley floor. And yet it still has a special feeling for those making their way up Brush Creek’s rustic winding road after dark. If you have seen it, you know what I mean.

I love that sparkle almost as much as I love the twinkling golden leaves, and yet I’m not sure how I would feel about an urban entrance effect that sparkling yellow lights may generate if they were to line our still rural Brush Creek and Owl Creek Roads.

I believe we are in need of some strategically placed crosswalks painted along our roads, however the push-button yield lights at crosswalks, now trending through our neighboring towns, may or may not be what is right for Snowmass Village. This relatively new pedestrian protection plan promises safety as its primary goal, and as a mother of 5- and 7-year-olds, I can’t argue with pertinent safety measures. However, I’m not yet convinced it is the answer for our village.

At first look I would think that there is no doubt that the safety of our children outweighs any other considerations; and if crosswalks with crossing lights, or any other feature would make it safer, then sign me up. Yet, as I took a closer look, I wondered if my initial thinking on the topic was thorough, as I realized there may be some reasons to call this idea into question.

I’d like to pose three points to ponder on this subject. First, will these extra features solve the problem? Second, is there actually a problem to be solved and, if not, might we be inadvertently creating the very problem we are trying to prevent? And third, how will this change the character of our village?

Third question first as perhaps this is more of an aesthetic debate then a safety one, which easily makes it more subjective. I recently spent three nights visiting relatives in Denver, and each time I travel to the land of suburbia I rush back to my little village grateful for what we have here.

It always leaves me thinking hard about why we are here. Cities have more, well, everything: people, jobs, entertainment, variety, culture, stuff- stuff by the box-store-loads. So why move so inconveniently far away from “it all.” Are we escaping from overcrowding, overstimulation, overindulgence of all things (I don’t know), maybe all things manufactured? Standardization is so prevalent in suburbia it can feel mind-numbing, Lemming-creating — OK it’s not that bad, but I’m a small town girl at heart.

So I ask the question again, think hard about why we are here. Do we really want the suburban character to creep in?

Since the mid-1900s it seems that leaving the city and moving to the suburbs became a goal for many, and this notion is still relevant today, but now it is often an even farther push out of the suburbs and back to the rural towns. So why are we often, even accidentally, continuing to try to bring the very elements of the city and suburbs along with us as we move away from them?

Rural communities across the country seem to be making the case not against sprawl — that fight in our area has been largely won — but against uniformity.

The shift from rural to suburban can be slow and subtle, yet here in Snowmass we are in a unique setting because our town is relatively new, surrounded by national forests and mountain-scapes and functioning as a resort community. Also, lucky for us, many of our locals have actually seen this valley throughout its transformation from a rural ranching valley into a bustling ski resort, all within their lifetime. So for them it is easier to recognize creeping suburbanization as it begins to spill in.

But for those who have moved here more recently and for all of the reasons aforementioned, some of those suburban conveniences are sorely missed and may seem like new and better ideas to introduce. The thing is, many such “conveniences” are specifically not here because they can and will change our character.

Suburbanites often envision rural life to be filled with peace and tranquility, that “getting-away-from-it-all” ideal, but often forget where and how that sensation came to be.

Retaining its character is a motto for many of the small towns that surround the urban edge. That argument, articulated by many, is always the same and simply resists a homogenizing influence on town planning and thinking. There, of course, is always going to be some “not-in-my-backyard” resistance to any new or big idea; in our village we have to look hard at each subtle change. Curbs, sidewalks, street signs, billboards, traffic lights, white picket fences, each of which might seem individually acceptable, but as a full package would we like where we might end up?

Now to consider safety for a moment.

What do flashing lights do for our social responsibility? Will we come to rely on them instinctively over time? Will they create a false sense of security? Do you drive through a cross walk if the individual waiting to cross has not pushed the button? Or, as a pedestrian, would you dart out blindly when the lights are flashing?

As a little kid, my only safety measure was my mother’s swift-moving arm grabbing me before I darted out into the street until, like all children, I learned for myself to look both ways.

Researchers in Uganda’s Kibale National Park found that the local chimpanzees check for oncoming traffic before crossing the dusty, busy highways that run through the park. Of the 122 chimps caught on camera, 92 percent looked left, right or both ways before crossing.

I have been watching the push-button yield lights closely around Aspen over the past few weeks, and I have seen a variety of individuals, particularly on Mill Street, who push those crosswalk buttons and strut, face forward, across the street as if with a sense of entitlement, some even pushing strollers or walking dogs, others texting or talking on their phones. Even with flashing lights, this seems like a dangerous leap of faith.

Aspen is different for a variety of reasons, including frequent intersections, some with four-way-stops, and four lanes of traffic on Main Street where I believe the yield-lights serve their purpose.

I tested the electronic crosswalk that feels the most similar to our village roads myself and pushed the button at the Aspen public school campus crosswalk and then had to wait while five cars blew through the flashing lights in front of a school. So do they work as they should? Maybe … not sure. Try it for yourself.

Someone functioning under the false sense of security of flashing lights at a crosswalk may not notice a car sliding toward them on a slippery, icy morning, or a large truck barreling down Brush Creek Road that may be unable to stop, especially with momentum on a slick snowy day, even if the lights are noticeably flashing away. Stepping off the curb at the push of a button could be a costly catastrophe.

Even when it comes to our precious children can we truly “baby-proof” our town as much as we may want?

Believe me, I want to keep my kids safe just as much as any mother. Still, I often hold my breath and cringe as I watch my kids fall down, get reprimanded, hurt or struggle. Don’t get me wrong, I want my kids to be safe and happy and, by the way, I am watching. I just don’t think I help them by constantly interfering, running to their aid, defending them or solving their problems for them. When they need me I’m there to hold their little hands as they cross the road and remind them to always, even on my tiny cul-de-sac street, look both ways before they cross. Because I don’t want them to need me forever and I certainly don’t want to enable helplessness.

Anyone who’s ever been to a school science fair and seen the elaborate projects that obviously weren’t conceived by a child’s brain, knows that parents are more involved than ever these days. The overprotective instincts of modern parents may possibly be hurting our children’s independence, trapping them in a hyper-controlled bubble from which it may be difficult to escape.

While reading through the many baby safety manuals that I had relied on as a new mom, I discovered that kids are programmed through evolution to be risk takers because taking risks is how children once learned to survive in the pre- “helicopter parent” era. Which explains why most parents feel like we are just trying to keep our little “Einsteins” alive on a day-to-day basis.

Things like climbing, handling sharp objects, playing near a campfire or river, wrestling or exploring alone are all essential in helping kids conquer small challenges as they are preparing for the bigger ones. I’m a firm believer that we need to teach our children to look both ways before they cross the road, and if they don’t learn this imperative life lesson, how can they leave our little bubble and survive in the real world?

As for adults, “Frogger” was fun … in third grade … on Sega.

Protect yourself, remember what your mother taught you and wait before crossing. Most of the day, there are occasional spaces between cars for periods that can be as long as four minutes on both Brush and Owl Creek roads, I know, I’ve been timing it.

Statistically, from 2005 to 2015, less than 9 percent of pedestrian fatalities occurred in a crosswalk (the type with white painted lines), and nationally, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 3/4 of the pedestrians who died in 2014 were jaywalking in urban areas. And of the rest, only 20 percent were at intersections. The majority of those occurred at night between 8 p.m. and 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays are the most dangerous days for pedestrians as are New Year’s Day (presumably the early morning hours) and Halloween. So rural street crossing at crosswalks during daylight hours actually is pretty safe.

My final point for us to consider is that crosswalks are a safety feature and, as such, there should probably be nation-wide standardization. Crossings with flashing yellow lights may be common in our neck of the woods, however we have visitors who may not be familiar with them as a clear directive to stop. And if we train our community members to rely on a push-button system, our villagers and, yes, specifically our children, may loose their otherwise mindful crosswalking skill set and develop a false sense of security.

How fortunate we are to live in a town that is so considerate and cautious, thoughtful and progressive. We also are lucky to have had so few tragic events. And we spend millions on roundabouts and the like in an effort to minimize problems.

There is no question in my mind that one tragedy prevented would be worth reconsidering all of the discussion points I have been pondering. However, it would be so sad to try to solve a problem that we didn’t yet have by creating one that we couldn’t foresee.

Let’s exchange a piece of my mind for a little peace of mind, after all, if we always agree what will we talk about? Britta Gustafson appreciates an open mind; share yours and email her at brittag@ymail.com.


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