Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Carless or Not, Pedestrians Deserve Better

February 26, 2014 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow

In Washington, D.C., a relatively friendly place in the United States for nonmotorized travel, a man named Joseph Brown was walking to his transit stop on a bridge roadway last week because the sidewalk was full of plowed snow, and got a ticket for it. After he was killed when hit by a car.

This nearly incredible story illustrates how deeply autocentric American culture remains, viewing all things related to personal transportation through the windshield.

Even in New York City, where pedestrians far outnumber drivers on Manhattan Island, the new mayor, progressive icon Bill de Blasio, defended aggressive enforcement of jaywalking laws after police allegedly beat an 84-year-old man they were trying to ticket for illegally crossing a Broadway intersection. 

In fast-motorizing China, police have stepped up jaywalking crackdowns, forcing offenders in Shanghai to read traffic regulations aloud. In Singapore, you could get a $1,000 fine and six months in jail for repeat offenses.

Something's wrong with this picture, but it's not exactly breaking news. More than 60 years ago, science fiction legend Ray Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian" told of a man picked up by Los Angeles police for the suspicious activity of walking.

By then, the whole notion of jaywalking -- a country bumpkin (a "jay") ambling about the city blissfully blind to motor traffic -- had long been engrained, thanks to a pervasive auto industry public relations campaign dating to the 1920s. According to historian Peter Norton, a counter attempt to popularize the term "jaydriving" was short-lived.

"For years, pedestrians were essentially written out of the equation when it came to designing streets," Tom Vanderbilt, author of "Traffic -- Why We Drive the Way We Do," told BBC News. "They didn't even appear in early computer models, and when they did, it was largely for their role as 'impedence' -- blocking vehicle traffic."

Slowly, thankfully, the pendulum may be swinging back toward those on two feet, the most universal form of transport. It starts with research questioning basic windshield-view assumptions about the significance of nonmotorized travel.

"Conventional travel surveys often overlook or undercount shorter trips, non-work trips, off-peak trips, non-motorized trips, children's travel and recreational travel," Victoria Transport Policy Institute writer Todd Litman notes in "Whose Roads?" a broad look at non-motorists' rights on public thoroughfares. "Many surveys ignore non-motorized trips to access motorized modes; for example, a bike-bus-walk trip is simply considered a transit commute, and a trip that involves several blocks of walking from a parked car to destinations is coded as an automobile trip."

In reality, almost all of us are pedestrians some of the time. That's what 25-year-old Caitlan Barton was, after presumably traveling by car to the West Calhoun area of Minneapolis from her home in suburban Savage, when she was struck and killed by truck on Lake Street this month.

Barton wasn't even jaywalking, but legally crossing with a green light. The truck driver, making a right turn, reportedly didn't see the victim and dragged her a quarter of a block. The incident occurred Feb. 13 at 6:15 p.m., twilight time rated the most dangerous for pedestrians.

"Right after sunset, when drivers are squinting from the light in their eyes, is when most fatal traffic accidents with pedestrians happen," writes Holly Richmond in a Grist article with an instructive chart of the times of day and year when the risk is highest to the parties in car-person crashes who lack air bags and side-impact protection.

Coincidentally, Minneapolis officials were on a walking tour of pedestrian safety issues in the area when Barton's body was crushed. If the Southwest light-rail line actually gets built, a station nearby will probably greatly increase foot traffic. A proposed land bridge across busy Lake Street would cost up to $40 million. But the city last year installed much more affordable corner curb extensions at three Uptown intersections and one downtown. At $6,000 to $20,000 per intersection, they force vehicles to make wider turns while enhancing visibility and shortening crossing distances for pedestrians.

"If you look at an intersection that's huge and wide and then you look at one that's smaller and more comfortable -- it's like, are we building our streets for cars, or are we building our streets for people to walk on?" City Council Member Linea Palmisano told the Star Tribune.

I know how some autocentric conservatives would answer that question. In a Star Tribune commentary, Kim Crockett and David Strom of the Center of the American Experiment deride "greenback urbanites" who "insist on ... a major shift from cars and even commuter buses to trains, bikes and walking." They doubt that anyone will "give up his car," even if that terribly sinister urban vision is achieved.

Actual statistics show that some people are already doing that. But that's not even relevant to arguments for a safe, efficient multimodal transportation system. As the tragic deaths of Joseph Brown and Caitlan Barton demonstrate, you don't necessarily have to give up your car to become a pedestrian who deserves physical and legal infrastructure that allows you to survive simply crossing a street or bridge.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.