Step Backward, Step Forward

Walkers used to own the streets. Now they’re looking to reclaim expropriated property.


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A few weeks ago I was out walking in my neighborhood when an SUV came barreling around the corner and into a crosswalk I had traversed halfway. I assumed the car would stop; the driver obviously assumed I would stop. What’s the opposite of a standstill? Collision course? Because that’s where we were headed for some long nanoseconds.

I can be pretty stubborn when I cross streets — I don’t respond well to bullying, even if the bully outweighs me by 4,000 pounds. I didn’t want to stop in this case because I clearly had the right of way — the laws say that the turning car had to yield to me. But to paraphrase a hoary mushroom hunter joke, there are old pedestrians, and bold pedestrians, but no old, bold pedestrians.

I didn’t really want to become a statistic — in part, because it would be so easy to get lost among them. About 12 percent of all road accident deaths in the U.S. are pedestrians. About 64 percent of pedestrians who die do so from brain injuries (somewhat less than cyclists). A study that involved four countries — US, Japan, Germany and Australia — found that about half of pedestrian accidents occurred when cars were traveling less than 15 miles per hour. (The odds of an accident resulting in a fatality rises sharply at 25 miles per hour.) In England, “fatal and serious pedestrian casualties” tend to peak on Fridays, generally around 5pm, and are highest in the month of December. (Reasons cited include fading light, fatigued drivers, and walkers and drivers who’ve had a drink or two.)

I continued across the intersection as the SUV bore down on me, giving the driver a hard stare; he responded by braking momentarily, then he simultaneously accelerated and swerved toward the curb, squeezing by me with a half-dozen inches to spare and nearly clipping me with his rear-view mirror. I got an up close and personal view of a middle-aged driver in a button-down shirt, his face contorted as he screamed for me to get out the hell out of his road. I hollered back with succinct instructions involving his junk and an adjacent orifice.

Pedestrians and cars have had a complex relationship for more than a century. It’s not exactly a predator and prey thing, but there’s an interesting and complex dynamic at work. A car says: I can hurt you in the short term. The pedestrian says: I can hurt you in the long term, because if you hit me I will tie you up with expensive and time-consuming court proceedings, even if you kill me.

“Almost everybody drives or rides, at least at times,” a writer explained in the New York Times in 1961. “When he is doing this, he hates pedestrians. They get in the way. They walk too slowly. They sneer. They cost money if killed or injured.”

Of course, those sharing the road shouldn’t have to communicate via implicit threats. In an ideal world, meeting up at an intersections would result in more civilized conversation, which would go more like, “Oh, I see we’re crossing paths here, each in our way to get to where we’re going. Why don’t you go on ahead, as I’m not in a great hurry.”

This actually doesn’t have to be said in so many words. It can be done with small gestures and facial expressions. In fact, this happens thousands of times each day when two cars arrive at a four-way stops signs at the same time. Here, one driver often signals to another with a brisk, go-ahead wave. It’s a strangely humanizing moment, and leaves the yielder momentarily feeling as if they’ve made a deposit in their good will account. It’s the sort of humanizing moment that’s become almost vanishingly rare when we’re driving about in cars.

Studies show that we cease making eye contact when we hit about 20 miles per hour. (Traffic historian Tom Vanberbilt notes, citing evolutionary history, “we are presumably not meant to move faster than we can run, which tops out at around 20 miles per hour.”) Not making eye contact also makes sense in practical ways — it allows us to keep track of where we are on the road and to scan for current or looming hazards. In any event, when we speed up and encase ourselves in a steel carapace, and hide ourselves behind wraparound tinted windows, we cease being humans navigating a complex world together, and instead become programmed pieces in a landscape-scaled board game with elaborate, arcane rules.

In the early automotive days, say 1900 to 1920, drivers and pedestrians actually operated on a more level playing field, and shared equal rights to the road. The street had historically been the pedestrian’s domain, and cars were expected to conform to those who were there first. Speeds were capped at 10 mile per hour on streets for years; if a car hit a pedestrian prior to about 1915, the presumption of guilt was invariably on the driver. As late as 1909 a reporter for a Delaware paper expressed concern that the automobile “had not yet been adjusted to its proper place.”

How quaint.

Take a look at this mesmerizing film from San Francisco, shot from a slow moving streetcar in 1906, just four days before the earthquake. Automobiles, pedestrians, bicycles, horse-drawn wagons, and streetcars all shared the street and worked around one another, human to human, without adhering to any hard and fast rules:

Streets were more or less nondenominational spaces for several decades after the cars first appeared. Different religions of movement were each given the freedom to practice as they saw fit. It wasn’t always utopian practice, of course — cities had a staggeringly high number of pedestrian deaths from the get-go. (In the 1906 video clip, you’ll see a couple of pedestrians leaping out of the way of bullying cars.)

The growing carnage was perversely and slyly used to by “automobilists” to gradually take control of the streets — all in the name of public safety, of course. The automobile sect, following the dictates of the AAA club Vatican, soon controlled all the lanes, and installed traffic engineers in city halls as archbishops. The conversion was complete. (This history is told in Peter Norton’s oddly engaging 2008 book, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City.)

Walking advocates didn’t roll over immediately — many loudly and brashly attacked cars as the “modern Moloch.” (Definition: “a Canaanite idol to whom children were sacrificed”). But like heretics everywhere, they were ultimately dismissed and ignored by the ruling automotive church.

So urban byways steadily morphed from being spaces of complex relationships where lives were lived to, essentially, traffic sewers, administered like utilities by municipal bureaucrats interested solely in mechanical efficiency and speed. Social space was sacrificed. “The old common law rule that every person, whether on foot or driving, has equal rights in all parts of the roadway,” wrote Miller McClintock, then a 29-year old graduate student and soon to be a pioneering traffic engineer, “must give way before the requirements of modern transportation.” City streets started to lose their humanity, and new construction across huge swaths of the country — suburbs, strip malls, major arterials — followed the new mandates and were designed without any accommodations for the exiled walker.

“The day of the hero with the long careless stride is over,” wrote Elizabeth Onativia in the New York Times in 1929. “The more careless it is the quicker it is over. Pedestrianism in city streets today involves executive ability, planning, and foresight, specialized knowledge and concentration.” The article was entitled “Pedestrian lot not a happy one.”

But slowly, block-by-block, pedestrians are starting to take back the streets. Beachheads include a stretch of Broadway in New York, scattered parklets in San Francisco, and better sidewalks and intersections in smaller cities like Raleigh, N.C., which adopted a progressive city plan that promotes design for walking. In England, the “20’s Plenty” movement now has some two hundred campaigns in cities across the island, encouraging municipalities to make 20 miles per hour the default speed limit.

The saint of the modern pedestrian revival is the late Hans Monderman. Faced with a small budget and a request that he make streets safer in part of a Dutch village called Oudehaske, Monderman did the unthinkable: He removed curbs and signs and let cars, bikes and pedestrians come together and sort it out on their own.

It worked: The more nuanced environment slowed down drivers, and the intermingling demanded communication using body language and eye contact. Accidents decreased, traffic moved steadily. The concept — called “naked streets” or “shared space” — has been expanding across Europe, and is slowly, tentatively, making its way to American shores. It’s like 1910 all over again.

There’s also Complete Streets, a phrase increasingly heard in town council chambers around the country. It’s an effort to end the partitioning of planning into isolated ecosystems (“highways,” “bike lanes,” etc.) and instead redefine what a street is supposed to do and find a way to accommodate all needs. (The notion has even been getting support in Washington, D.C.: “When it comes to transportation, we need to have people with a vision,” said former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “People that understand that DOT is not just about roads and bridges anymore.”) The Complete Streets movement is bringing walkers and bikers to the table with traffic engineers and car advocates, and finding ways of designing streets that benefit all. It’s certainly a step up from pedestrians being referred to as VRUs (“vulnerable road users”), as they are in some highway safety research papers.

This approach may seem radical to some, a complete reversal of how Things Are Done. But it’s not. It’s a return to the way things once were, after a century-long misguided detour, when streets were viewed merely as sluices. It’s a return that’s long overdue. It took about three generations to eradicate pedestrians from the road, and it might take three generations to make it safe for them to come back. But the pivot is well underway.

Maybe the best way to promote civility along our streets isn’t for walkers to tell bullying drivers to go fuck themselves.

But sometimes that just feels like a step in the right direction. • 15 May 2013