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.

12 Responses to “Pedestrian”

  1. Botswana Meat Commission FC Says:

    Bay Street is some kind of huge debacle of traffic engineering. How on earth did city planners manage to funnel every single container truck right through savannah’s waterfront road? It’s crazy.

    As for where to eat in Savannah, ditch Lady and Sons and hit up The Pirate House. Make sure you try the fried chicken with pecan sauce.

  2. Peter Smith Says:

    i’m hoping that google maps eventually lets us set our preference for directions — for me, bike first, then walk, then transit, etc.

    and we should be able to us the ‘dial 911 when intimidated’ whenever cars intimidate us. lock ’em up all up.

  3. ken Says:

    Drivers are people too. Cars can’t drive on the sidewalks. Pedestrians (other people) should certainly not have preference on streets and highways. People in cars and people walking are equal except that walkers cannot hurt cars significantly by stepping in front of them. According to the laws of physics, non-suicidal walkers should give way to 2-ton chunks of steel which cannot stop immediately. Besides, it takes much less energy for a person to stop than for a car to stop. I have been a bicycle person and am a motorcycle person. The fact that I am still alive is evidence to some degree that I put the laws of physics before the laws of man.

  4. geografree Says:

    A related rif on the pedestrian concept… I saw Gil Penalosa speak last year and he made a compelling point that tourism is pedestrian. In places where tourism is a significant part of the economy it make sense that a large chunk of that investment money should be going into people, places and spaces…

  5. aaron Says:

    Ped means foot.

  6. Hen Says:

    You can easily see the difference of an auto-centric map to a general map if you compare Google Maps with Open Streetmaps ( In my city for example you can see all tiny walker paths within the parks and elsewhere where it’s publicly allowed to walk. The difference is like a streetmap showing only highways or all (auto-)streets.

    Of course Open StreetMap is a community based Open Source project so your local map might be different depending on the activity of the local community (you can see my example in Braunschweig, Germany, if you’re interested).

  7. wes kirkman Says:

    wow. I read the article you linked regarding jaywalking crackdowns in Savannah and it sounds like the City needs to spend some more time investigating their issues. Someone gets ran over while crossing in a crosswalk; their response is to start ticketing pedestrians for jaywalking in an effort to increase safety?

    You are correct, they have their priorities all screwy: “During the week of May 17, officers wrote 175 tickets for crossing against a signal and another 10 for crossing a roadway at a spot other than a crosswalk. Seven motorists were cited for failing to yield to a pedestrian.” Based on my informal daily observations (probably biased, but still), there had to have been a larger proportion of motorists not following safety laws: failing to yield, rolling stops, reckless driving (texting?), and the big one: speeding. They cited 7 motorists vs. 185 pedestrians…crazy. I wonder what proportion of those “dangerous” jaywalkers were actually crossing in front of traffic so as to pose an issue.

  8. njkayaker Says:

    “waiting at a marked crosswalk for vehicles to stop”

    “(a) The driver of a vehicle shall stop and remain stopped to allow a pedestrian to cross the roadway within a crosswalk when the pedestrian is upon the half of the roadway upon which the vehicle is traveling, or when the pedestrian is approaching and is within one lane of the half of the roadway on which the vehicle is traveling or onto which it is turning. For the purposes of this subsection, “half of the roadway” means all traffic lanes carrying traffic in one direction of travel.”

    Vehicles must yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk.

    “(b) No pedestrian shall suddenly leave a curb or other place of safety and walk or run into the path of a vehicle which is so close that it is impractical for the driver to yield.”

    This implies that it is legal for pedestrians to “force” vehicles to yield it is not impractical for the vehicles to stop.

    “(a) Every pedestrian crossing a roadway at any point other than within a marked crosswalk or within an unmarked crosswalk at an intersection shall yield the right of way to all vehicles upon the roadway unless he has already, and under safe conditions, entered the roadway.”

    Thus, “jaywalking” is legal if the pedestrian yields to traffic.

    If there are traffic signals for pedestrians (“walk”/”don’t walk”), pedestrians have to follow them.

    Note: Savannah might have local laws that override the state laws.

  9. ibc Says:

    You’ve nailed it. In our society, it’s auto travel that’s normative. Anything else is borderline antisocial behavior. You need only listen to the way that entitled automobile drivers talk about people on foot. How dare they “jaywalk” (a word which has an interesting history of its own)? Or ride a bicycle in traffic? How arrogant!

    This guy sums the mentality up perfectly:

    According to the laws of physics, non-suicidal walkers should give way to 2-ton chunks of steel which cannot stop immediately.

    Remember, if you’re not in a car, you need to get out of the streets, because that’s what streets are for: cars. If you don’t, you must adhere to every single law on the books with absolute, critical, precision. Otherwise, you deserve whatever you get.

    Perhaps Savannah could pass a handgun law allowing pedestrians to open fire on drivers whenever they feel their right-of-way is infringed upon. Then we’ll be able to say:

    “According to the laws of psychology, non-suicidal drivers should give way to heavily-armed people on foot who are infinitely more vulnerable, and likely to react violently when threatened intentionally or through carelessness.”

    I mean, it’s only natural right? It doesn’t matter if you’re right if you’ve got a gaping head wound…

  10. Eileen Says:

    In his essay on Walking, Thoreau never uses the word pedestrian. I suppose that’s neither here nor there, but it’s interesting. “For every walk is a sort of crusade, preached by some Peter the Hermit in us, to go forth and reconquer this holy land from the hands of the Infidels.”

    It’s also questionable in my mind whether the laws which require walkers to yield to vehicles between intersections is constitutional. Two Federal circuit courts (9th and 7th) have held that walking is a right, but driving is not. Three other Federal circuits (2d, 10th and I think 11th) have held that walking is a major life activity for ADA purposes, but that driving is not. No Federal circuit court has reached the opposite conclusion, and the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on any of the cases. So, for now, the law of the land is that drivers and walkers are not equal. The government can burden rights under certain conditions, or if the burden is neutral (signaled intersections might meet that condition), but requiring the person who is exercising a right to yield to the one who is not —- as the requirement for walkers to yield to drivers between intersections does — not so much.

  11. Ed Hillsman Says:

    Regarding your comment on medieval defenses, walkable cities, and urban growth boundaries, my first visit to Italy started in Lucca, with a bike trip along the top of the wall which survives almost intact around the old part of the city. The wall now is the boundary between where cars are permitted (outside) and not (inside, except for service vehicles). I loved it.

  12. Steve R Says:

    @ken: Though you’re still alive, your reasoning is fatally flawed. According to your reasoning, the weak and vulnerable party shouldn’t expect law to come to their aid. Were that assumption held by governments throughout history, it’s unlikely your forbears would have survived to grace us with your presence.

    It’s precisely because a walking human would lose a contest with a car that we need more walking-friendly legal (and physical) landscapes.

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