Along for the Ride #140
To every pedestrian by Maria Gheorghiu
This week’s newsletter is brought to you by Maria Gheorghiu, a second year Urban Geography student at McGill University, and an avid walker and runner. She has developed a passion for bringing awareness to pedestrian rights as streets are being taken over by cars across the world. She’s always open to discussions about transport, environmental geography, and anything else related to the urban sphere. Enjoy the read!
To every pedestrian:
If you’re anything like me, you have found solace in going for the occasional walk during the pandemic. Even now that things are opening up again, going on walks can still be a very special moment. Walks make me feel at peace, especially now that the ice is melting and sidewalks are safer (because no, my town does not salt its sidewalks– salt is for the streets only).
My peace was recently interrupted when I almost got hit by a car while crossing the street. I had checked to see if the cars saw me (they did), started walking, and by the time I was halfway through, the car on the other side of the intersection started driving. I saw the driver, she saw me, and we made eye contact as we both advanced towards a point of collision. As an urban geographer, I wanted to see which one of us would stop first, and unfortunately, the answer goes without saying. As the Jeep Cherokee passed within a foot of me, its driver turned towards me and smiled, the kind of smile someone makes when they think they won an argument. Except this time, it wasn’t an argument– it was a small instance among a much larger and worrisome trend.
To understand why I’m dedicating an opinion piece to this aggravating interaction, it’s important to know that pedestrians and cars have been fighting over the road for as long as cars have existed. When cars first started appearing on the street, they were not entitled to the space, and had to share it with pedestrians and streetcars; in fact, it was very common for pedestrians to own the street. They were backed up by the law, where many judges supported their right to the road, and drivers were wholly held accountable for their actions in the event of a crash. So what happened? How did we get from there, to… wherever we are now?
When everything took a wrong turn
I like to think that everything went wrong when the term “jaywalking” appeared. If you’ve ever crossed a street anywhere but the narrow white/yellow lines legally assigned to you, you’re a jaywalker! As cars increased in use, their drivers felt entitled to the street, so it seemed that the only natural solution was to paint an image of pedestrians on the street as careless, irresponsible, and unsafe. Not to mention the active efforts car lobbying groups put into demonising the walking habits of pedestrians. With this, the term was coined. A societal shift ensued: cars went from being the intruders on the street, to having the right to the road, at the expense of pedestrians. The entitlement of drivers to believe streets could not be shared can still be seen nowadays; what happened to me at the intersection is one example among many.
Pedestrian fatalities are unacceptably high. In 2019, the number of pedestrian deaths was over 6,500, while the overall traffic death rate decreased, implying that pedestrians bear the fatal consequences of crashes more often than drivers do. This discrepancy in deaths between pedestrians and drivers is devastating. The reality is that no amount of road safety campaigns will ever be fully successful in reducing pedestrian fatalities, because a large portion of the problem inherently lies in cars and how they’re designed.
SUVs and light trucks in particular pose a great threat to the urban road. They both have this problem called “crash incompatibility” where basically, the driver of an SUV or light truck is significantly more protected in the event of a crash than the car they crash into. In other words, if you’re driving a sedan, or worse, if you’re a pedestrian (like me), and you get hit by an SUV (such as a Jeep Cherokee), in all cases, you will bear the crash more significantly than the driver that hit you.
Crash incompatibility gives SUV and light truck drivers a sense of safety on the road, and combined with the size of their car, can equally give them a sense of superiority. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is aware of the dangers inherent in large-vehicle designs; despite imposing voluntary safety standards (which manufacturers do not have to follow) and recalls (which light truck owners in particular do not respond to), SUV and light truck sales have been at an all-time high since 1999. In fact, the design of large vehicles is only getting more disturbing: the 2022 GMC Yukon has a frontal blindspot that can hide an entire sports car, and 13 kids can sit in a row in front of a new Chevrolet Tahoe without being seen by the driver.
The second example is the most worrisome, to me, because the intersection that sparked my motivation to write this piece is located between two elementary schools. If I were a small child crossing the street on my way back from school, would the driver have behaved the same way? More importantly, would the driver have even seen me?
Where you fit into this
Okay, so we know that cars are getting more dangerous by design, and that more people are buying these dangerous cars, and that not-so-coincidentally, pedestrian deaths are rising. By now, you must be asking yourself what can be done, or even if something can be done. The truth is that ever since jaywalking became a widely used term, our society’s perceptions of pedestrians has shifted. I live in Quebec, and the Société de l’Assurance Automobile du Québec describes pedestrian priority in quite an ironic way: while pedestrians do have the right of way at crosswalks, they have to make sure that drivers are yielding the right of way before they can cross. So basically, you have the right of way, unless a driver decides you don’t. Not to mention that by definition, jaywalking (or walking outside the tiny fraction of the street that is accorded to you), is illegal. So what can you, as a pedestrian, do?
Obviously changing traffic regulations is something that takes time and governmental effort, and changing societal perceptions requires a massive shift in ideology. If you’re a frequent driver, and can’t understand why I felt the need to write this article, try walking to your destination, or crossing a busy intersection by foot– you’ll see that frankly, it’s less than ideal. If you drive an SUV or light truck, ask yourself exactly why you like driving your vehicle, and if your answer is “it’s big”, I invite you to reconsider your transportation choices. Above all, if you’re a pedestrian, own what is yours, and work on shifting the onus of responsibility from the vulnerable pedestrian, to the overprotected motorist– join an active transport community; become an activist.
This piece is not dedicated to or written about all drivers. Because it’s important to acknowledge that a century’s worth of North-American auto-centric planning has resulted in sprawl and inadequate public transit that create car dependency. This article is dedicated, instead, to able-bodied people who drive in cities where public transit options are available at the corner of every block, to people who drive SUVs and light trucks for any reason that includes self-esteem inflation or the impression of superiority, and to every pedestrian who has had their street and safety taken away by the car.
If you feel intrigued, inspired, or infuriated by this text, feel free to contact me by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also see more of my opinions and critical thinking on Twitter, at @mariagheorgh1u. I am more than happy to answer any questions you have on the topic of pedestrian activism, or anything else related to urban transportation geography.
All the best, your local urbanista.