I’m currently down in Savannah, Georgia, at the meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association. At an afternoon panel I was struck by a brief line of inquiry let out by Michael Ronkin. Briefly, he asked the audience to consider the word “pedestrian.” If you see someone coming down the hall toward you in an office, do you think of them as a pedestrian? If you were hiking in the woods and someone came walking along, would you say, ‘here comes a pedestrian’? The word pedestrian, Ronkin suggested, only makes sense in relation to traffic, and I suppose it’s a function of our auto-centric society that to do something we were born to do, indeed evolved over a long time to do, should be considered a “mode,” an “activity,” or some kind of “road user.”
Strange too is the confluence of its meaning; not just the sense of a walker but from the Latin pedester, meaning “plain, prosaic.” This contrasts with equester, i.e., one who goes by horse, which is decidedly not equated with the plain or prosaic. Was there even some kind of pre-automobile bias against people walking? I don’t have in front of me, but if any book would have an answer it’s presumably Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. The irony, of course, is now that it’s driving that’s become pedestrian, and walking which is novel.
Following the talk the group assembled for a “pedestrian safety walking tour” of the historic center (such an exercise would be futile in the suburbs) of Savannah, one of the country’s “ten most walkable cities” (in part because of the squares originally put in as part of a defense regimen, and one wonders here about a thesis to be written on military defense planning and walkable cities; i.e., medieval city walls as the original urban growth boundaries). Even walkable Savannah has its issues; Bay Street, for example, is 12% heavy truck traffic (to and from the port), lumbering down nine-foot lanes — as the city’s engineer explained it, people feel they are going faster than they really are, because of their size. Then there’s Paula Deen. Her “Lady and Sons” restaurant has become so popular (following her rise on TV) that massing waiting crowds often develop on the corners; the city eventually installed a four-way stop.
But once one is on the lookout for it, one realizes how strange that word — pedestrian — is; waiting at a marked crosswalk for vehicles to stop — some do, many don’t (though the city has seemed more concerned with jaywalking than “failure to yield” by vehicles) — one sees huge signs, warning those same drivers to “Stop for Pedestrians.” I thought, ‘wait, who’s a pedestrian? Is that me?’ Simply by going out for a walk I’ve become this strange being, studied by engineers, my rights presumably codified by signs (why not: “Stop for People”). On the same signs were often attached additional signs advising not to give to panhandlers (and call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace (in some places you might be considered the menace).
Lastly, I wanted to check out a restaurant that had been recommended. I punched it into the maps app on the iPhone, and noted that the default setting for giving directions, and journey times, is for car. The time mentioned was 3 minutes. Walking, the third option, was 9 minutes. I doubt that the time listed for car includes walking to the car — that moment when all of us become pedestrians — finding parking at the destination, walking to the destination.
This entry was posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 7:24 pm and is filed under Pedestrians, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.