Traffic. Just the word itself conjures depressing images of congestion, angry motorists and fearful pedestrians.
In Columbus it is often associated with those times when scores of train cars seem to inch through the crossing at Jonathan Moore Pike west of town, creating blocks-long lines of stopped drivers.
But there’s another kind of traffic around these parts. It’s a system familiar to parents and grandparents of school-age children who drop off and pick up their young charges from school in the morning and mid-afternoon.
This kind of traffic has the makings for the other kind of traffic. It could get congested, drivers can get angry, and pedestrians can be excused for their share of edginess. Surprisingly, school traffic seems to work fairly well these days, at least at the schools to which I have taken my grandchildren now and in the recent past.
I have to confess to being a bit spoiled when it comes to school traffic. Most of my experience has been with ABC-Stewart School on Indiana 46 west. It’s one of the smallest schools in Bartholomew County, and there are no other schools in the immediate vicinity. The lines seldom extend beyond six or seven cars, and even then the flow is pretty smooth.
There’s more congestion and longer lines at Central Middle School and Columbus East High School. But both situations have been manageable and relatively free of frustrations, save for the lack of sidewalks on some of the streets leading to East and the fear of hitting a walking student hard to see in the early morning darkness.
It was when my third granddaughter enrolled at Northside Middle School this year that I experienced a sense of dread at having to drop her off for classes in the morning. Admittedly, I hadn’t had much experience with driving in the area of the 27th Street school around the time the sun is just starting to rise. Knowing what normal traffic was in the vicinity was enough to scare me to death.
By all measures, traffic in that area should be nothing short of a nightmare. For one thing, there’s the competition factor. Northside chauffeurs also have to share time and space with those dropping off students at Columbus North High School, Schmitt Elementary and St. Bartholomew Catholic School. All four institutions are jammed together in a complex of four blocks.
Moreover, they all are fed by streets that are either already congested or so narrow that oncoming motorists have to take turns navigating around cars parked on both sides of the street. I have often asked the Lord to help the poor souls who have to cut across traffic to make turns into any of the parking lots at North or find a way onto any of the side streets.
I’ve had to face those conditions an average of one or two mornings a week since school started. By all normal measures I should have planned to spend at least half an hour in traffic leading to and away from the schools and experience a great deal of frustration and anger by the time I returned home.
Funny thing about that kind of anticipation. The reality is that traffic in that neighborhood really does work. I spend less than 15 minutes getting into and out of the multiple traffic zones, and instead of anger and frustration with other motorists, I have come to look upon them as well-behaved, polite and considerate of others.
My route to Northside begins on Franklin Street, north to 22nd, then east to Maple and from there north to 27th and the middle school. Maple Street should be the real bottleneck in the system. Cars park on both sides, and there is barely enough room for oncoming traffic to get through without a lot of scraping. It’s even more fun in the time before the sun has fully risen, and you have to hope that the lights coming toward you don’t belong to a semi.
Getting through that stretch past 25th Street is actually a kind of adventure not unlike that provided on a European race course. When confronting sections with cars parked on both sides, Maple Street drivers usually stop and give the oncoming cars the right-of-way to proceed. I suspect that most of those drivers headed south on Maple are parents who have already dropped off their children.
The intersection of 25th and Maple streets should be the nightmare crossing. There’s a stoplight, but there are also a bunch of drivers from either side of 25th Street who want to pull off into one of the parking lots for the high school and middle school. The first of these parking blocks is less than a half block from the light, and under normal conditions there should be lengthy backups because students and teachers would be blocked by oncoming and stalled traffic from getting into the lot.
In the six weeks I’ve been taking my granddaughter to school, I’ve never had to wait behind a teacher or student trying to get into a parking lot. People in the oncoming traffic lane stop short of the car ahead and leave room for them to get through.
There’s a crossing guard at 27th Street, and she has had to halt traffic while students cross the street, but the waits have been short because kids walk fast, even to school.
There should a mad scramble for places in line into the Northside entrance on 27th Street given that vehicles are approaching from the east and west and students are crossing on foot. There isn’t because the drivers wait for the students to cross and take turns entering the area.
Drop-offs also have proceeded pretty smoothly. Some drivers drop their kids off earlier than others, but almost all still wait behind the other cars to move forward after their vehicles have been emptied. There have only been a few occasions when an early dropper-offer pulls out of the line to go around the others.
I have come away from all these experiences with a renewed faith in my fellow motorists. I’m sure that there have been times when tempers were tested and somebody broke into a line, but I’ve never seen it.
Indeed, Sgt. Matt Harris, public information officer for the Columbus Police Department, said that things don’t always go smoothly on the first few days of a school year. “On the other hand,” he added, “when we get past that breaking-in time, people get used to the system and become pretty proficient at working with other drivers.”
Imagine, drivers being considerate of one another. What a concept.
Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at [email protected].