email of the week: thinking pedestrian thoughts

DSCF5316 Is it useful to talk about "pedestrians" as a group the way we often talk about cyclists or transit riders?  All these category terms are problematic, as I discussed here.  Riordan Frost of Minnesota 2020 asks:

A recent article in a local paper and its connection to one of your previous blog posts has inspired me to write to you. The article is “Thinking Pedestrian Thoughts”, and it covers the recent adoption of a ‘pedestrian plan’ by Edina, which is an inner-ring suburb of the Twin Cities [of Minneapolis and St. Paul]. One of the points made in the article is that people don’t really advocate for themselves as pedestrians. This made me think of a post that you wrote back in October, which was entitled “should I call myself a ‘transit-rider’?” and discussed labels given to people using certain modes of transportation. In the post, you quote Michael Druker, who advocates for switching from ‘cyclist’ to ‘people cycling’ and from ‘pedestrian’ to ‘people walking’.

You agreed with him, but pointed out that these new terms were cumbersome, and you would probably still opt for the shorter terms in your writing. I write blogs and articles for MN2020, and I feel the same way. I understand the importance of what language we choose, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing, but I have a need for brevity and I have an editor. There is a more significant question apart from brevity, however: how do we avoid labels (which may carry negative connotations and/or stereotypes) while advocating for improvements of certain modes? …

Is it possible to cut down on lumping people into categories and still have effective advocacy for certain modes, like better crosswalks or more bike lanes? The cycling community is pretty well established in the blogosphere, which sometimes contributes to their ["cyclist"] label and its connotations, but pedestrians have no blogs or personalities specifically tailored to them – mostly because we are … all pedestrians at some point in the day, and there is nothing terribly distinctive about walking. I n a perfect world, we would just design our environments for all modes of transportation that people use, with people (not cyclists vs. motorists vs. pedestrians) in mind.   This doesn’t seem terribly viable, however.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the potential for organized activism and fellow-feeling is easier among a group of people who all wield the same tool, because tools are such powerful symbols.  Think about the role of the hammer and sickle — archetypal tools of manufacturing and agriculture, respectively — in the imagery of Soviet communism, for example.

The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.

If you don't think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument.  If you read an online forum about such possessions, you'll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other's stories about life with the cherished tool.

So this is another thing that's going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies.  People who love aerial gondolas or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other's problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool.  Psychologically, it's just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.

Pedestrians don't have that.  So I doubt we'll ever see a pedestrians-rights movement that has anything like the shape and force of the cycling movement.  Nor do we need to, really, because the best urban planning thought today is all about the primacy of the pedestrian. 

Ultimately, the strongest case for "pedestrian rights" is that we are all pedestrians.  Even the guy who loves his Porsche has to walk across parking lots, and can thus see the value of having protected paths between rows of cars instead of having to walk in the lot's roadways where a car can back into you.  Even he has a sense of what makes a shopping center or major downtown pleasant or unpleasant to walk in.  Maybe he's even broken down on the freeway and thus experienced what those places are like when you're out of your car.  So it's not hard to make anyone understand a pedestrian issue on analogy to the walking that everyone has to do.  That's how you win these arguments, I think.

17 Responses to email of the week: thinking pedestrian thoughts

  1. Eric Fischer January 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm #

    I can’t agree that “we are all pedestrians” works.
    If transit people actually understood walking, they wouldn’t be installing demand-actuated traffic signals along new streetcar lines.
    If bicycle people actually understood walking, they wouldn’t hover out in the crosswalk while waiting for the light to change (or for a chance to cross against the light).
    I think maybe people in the mindset of other transport modes can understand what it is like to walk along a street, but not what it is like to cross a street.

  2. Scott January 6, 2011 at 2:05 pm #

    “switching from ‘cyclist’ to ‘people cycling’ and from ‘pedestrian’ to ‘people walking’.”
    I would argue that ‘people walking’ from kitchen to couch, desk to copier, bedroom to garage, or through the mall are not ‘pedestrians’ in any useful sense. At least, not while doing only those things. To put it another way, a pedestrian is a person walking [subject to the question in the next paragraph!], but not every person walking is a pedestrian.
    “we are … all pedestrians at some point in the day” and again “we are all pedestrians. Even the guy who loves his Porsche has to walk across parking lots”
    Not with valet parking, reserved spaces by the door, and the like… And [here comes the question alluded to above] are you including people who use wheelchairs and scooters as ‘pedestrians?’ As ‘people walking?’

  3. Jarrett at January 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm #

    Scott.  Re scooters and wheelchairs, I respect their experience, but have you tried to come up with a word for "pedestrian" that fully and explicitly includes them without sounding hopelessly bureaucratic?  The word needs to be visceral, because we're talking about a basic reality.  Visceral words are often unfair to some groups.  I see no alternative but to ask people in wheelchairs and scooters to accept that we mean to include them when we refer to "walking" or "pedestrians."  I've tried talking about "pedestrians, wheelchair, and scooters."  It sounds like "gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and transsexual …"  Perfect fairness and sensitivity puts people to sleep.

  4. Jeff Wegerson January 6, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    I used to refer to myself as a “militant pedestrian”. I would insist upon my right-of-way at unlighted cross-walks and make cars slow and sometimes stop. I still do so occasionally but now a lot more carefully.
    So actually I have had and still have a sense of myself, a conscious identity, as a pedestrian.

  5. Alan Robinson January 6, 2011 at 4:26 pm #

    While it’s true that everyone is a pedestrian at some point, this does not apply over all routes. A Porsche owning person would not likely care about his mobility in the pedestrian mode when walking across a busy arterial, let alone over a distance of several kilometers. The same argument applies to many cycling trips, or even transit users.
    As most people do not often experience pedestrian trips along rail corridors or across 6 lane highways in suburbia, the ‘we are all pedestrians’ argument is fallacious.

  6. Jase January 6, 2011 at 11:07 pm #

    I think a pair of sensible shoes and an innate sense for when to jaywalk could easily be the symbols of the pedestrian revolution.

  7. Jarrett at January 6, 2011 at 11:11 pm #

    Sorry, "sensible" is an Aussie term!  Doesn't translate for Americans.  😉

  8. J B January 6, 2011 at 11:54 pm #

    Another thing is that it’s easy to get caught up in knowledge about cars, instruments, trains etc. Once you spend a lot of time committed to studying and using one particular tool you can lose perspective- that tool becomes a big part of your world. It’s hard to feel that way about walking, unless you’re a biologist.

  9. Tom West January 7, 2011 at 7:02 am #

    “Sensible shoes” is a term used in the UK as well. I didn’t know that it isn’t used in the US!

  10. Alurin January 7, 2011 at 9:43 am #

    Since when is “sensible shoes” not an American term?

  11. Peter Sipes January 7, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    Like Jeff comments above, I’ve been known to stride into crosswalks and force cars to stop. I yield right of way to pedestrians when driving. I am quite aware of myself as a pedestrian.
    When we bought our house, ability to walk to key destinations was a factor. Downtown (barber, bank, restaurants), public library, commuter rail stop are all pedestrian destinations for me in suburban America.
    Crossing major roads on foot is intimidating, though once you’ve done it is less psychologically intimidating. Crossing barriers on foot is empowering.

  12. Michael Moore January 7, 2011 at 7:18 pm #

    Sorry, but I’m with Eric (first comment) — I don’t think merely the experience of walking from the curbside parking spot or the parking garage down the block to your destination gives you anything but the barest inkling of what experiencing the built environment from a pedestrian’s POV is like. In NYC I used to walk about 2 1/4 miles (sorry, I’m American, I use “miles”) each way to & from work. At a good clip I could do this in roughly 35 minutes if I took the most direct route, though of course one of the delights of being a pedestrian is the ease with which one can vary one’s routes. Here in Portland, I couldn’t possibly cover the same distance in the same time — the deck is stacked against pedestrians getting anywhere fast, except perhaps for Pearl residents heading south to downtown. Outside of the central city, pedestrians face nothing but delays, including the demand-actuated signals Eric mentions and other surprises like disappearing sidewalks or (one of my favorites) “Sidewalk closed — Pedestrians must cross street” signs that pop up in the middle of the block!
    Here in Portland, vehicular (motorized and not) traffic is vastly over-prioritized at the expense of getting around on on foot, unless a goodly portion of your trip involves the streetcars the property developers love. You should see some of the byzantine intersections one has to negotiate to access the Hollywood MAX station. It amazes me they spent all this money on a light rail system it can be trying to access without a car. I would argue relatively few people in Portland really know what the pedestrian experience is like and I’m surprised you feel differently given that you’re from here.

  13. David January 10, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    This is a good question. Are we all pedestrians as Jarret suggests or are we all walking (few steps of few kilometers each day). I would argue that we all walk but that we are not all pedestrians. I define myself as a pedestrian because I walk to work everyday. It’s very different than walking in or around the house or in a mall or in a parking lot. After a couple of years, my view of the world – the automobile world we live in – has changed.
    I disagree with JB; as a pedestrian, it is possible to get caught up with such things as pedestrian lights, pedestrian crossings, snow removal on sidewalk, sidewalk design, etc. Those who just walk don’t pay that much attention to the lack of amenities for pedestrians I think.
    Therefore, I would suggest that a pedestrian is a « professional walker » rather than someone who only walk casually.

  14. Bob Davis January 12, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    Regarding “sensible shoes”, yes I’ve seen the term here in the States. Many years ago cartoonist Helen Hokinson did drawings featuring women in such footwear. I suppose the opposite would be stiletto heels.
    Regarding fascination with “hardware”: as a card carrying railway enthusiast and preservationist, I follow the world of railway transportation of all sorts, and have been active in promoting a local light-rail project. I realize that buses are appropriate for some routes, but that’s not what catches my attention. Projects that could go to either bus or rail may find that there’s an unpaid lobbying force of train fans encouraging railway construction. On the other hand the smarter train watchers know that if a railway line is built where it’s really impractical, or it’s poorly designed, it just gives encouragement to the anti-rail faction (or as we call them, The Forces of Darkness)
    Regarding the Aerial Gondola boosters: I’ve run into people of a similar sort who are convinced that Monorails are the answer to local passenger travel….

  15. Art Busman January 12, 2011 at 5:28 pm #

    How about using the old fashioned “eer” term? Rocketeer, one who rides in or pilots a rocket. Pedesteer, bicycleer, buseer, trolleyeer, streetcareer, transiteer, public transporteer, subwayeer.

  16. EngineerScotty January 12, 2011 at 7:59 pm #

    I dunno… “streetcareer” sounds like a euphemism for the oldest profession. 🙂

  17. J B January 19, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    @David, things like signals and snow removal are external to walking, just as they are to driving. People obsess over cars and not the details of street engineering, which are subtle and taken for granted by most drivers and walkers, until someone draws their attention to them (for example, NYC’s DOT).