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Pedestrian Perjury and Other Mobility Contradictions

The way we talk about cities informs their very function. How can we use language to redirect the responsibility of safe streets to these who have the power to create change?

By

Date

June 11, 2018

“When roads are built to prioritize cars, pedestrians are often faulted for getting hit”, reads Audrey McGlinchy’s transportation article in the Austin Monitor. While Austin adopted a Vision Zero strategy back in 2016, McGlinchy points out that there’s still a long way to go before the American city is ready to (safely) walk the walk.

Looking through local pedestrian fatality reports, McGlinchy found that a large portion of police cases file their documents as “death of offender”- placing fault on the pedestrian and concluding that there was nothing the driver could have reasonably done to avoid the incident. While pedestrians are well aware that the crosswalk is the safest place to cross the street, what happens when there’s no visible junction for the next 500 metres? What about when there are no sidewalks or street lights next to the roadways? How does the layout and design of streets promote or hinder the safety of pedestrians- and who’s responsible for when the infrastructure just isn’t quite sufficient?

Current rhetoric is not much help either. In the ongoing case of Car vs. The People, there’s very little room to address the municipality or street designers who should be held responsible for their role in traffic safety. Rather than designing streets for machines, it’s important to take those inside them into account, leaving a cushion for human error and accounting for safety. When streets are designed to prioritize cars, this mindset is absorbed by those behind the wheel, making drivers feel entitled and in-turn, putting anyone without 4000 lbs of defense in front of them at great risk.

Referring to pedestrian fatalities as “accidents” is also problematic. Charles Marohn’s 2015 Strong Towns article reminds us that the definition of an “accident” implies that there is no apparent cause or preventable origin for an incident. Traffic “accidents” often occur repeatedly at the same intersection, and are not usually as random as we naively believe. In fact, we know quite well where these incidents are likely to occur!

In other uplifting news for those who hate walking, Dayton Ohio recently passed legislation that mitigates blame for drivers involved in pedestrian fatalities. New regulations declare that it is illegal for pedestrians to come within 3ft of vehicles along 51 of Dayton’s busiest roadways. This new law puts the burden of safety on the feet of the pedestrian, prohibiting drivers from “interacting” with offending street crossers. This means that cars should not slow down or swerve out of their lane for any pedestrians who decide to cross the road. Those in opposition to the law have also pointed out its not-so-discrete criminalization of poverty, as the law extends to panhandlers who often use the roadway medians as sites to ask for help.

Browsing through mobility news, it’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of autonomous vehicles and bike share programs rerouting North America. While many cities have given the green light to these progressive programs, it’s worth calling attention to those that have not. It’s pertinent to note the privilege that comes with bike share programs and vision zero strategies, many of which have been adopted by politically-liberal cities, and arguably strengthen the urban-rural divide.

As excited as we are for the cities of the future, we must acknowledge that this is not an equal playing field. Much of North America is blighted by sprawl and understandably dependent on cars. Yes, cities should be taking the initiative in human-centred transportation strategies, but where they choose to draw their borders becomes highly political. It seems only contradictory that liberal urbanites call into question national border policies, yet ostracize their outland neighbours. Just look at Ohio! Back in 2016, the US Department of Transportation crowned Columbus as the winner of its Smart City Challenge, awarding the city with $50 million to carry out its innovative transportation vision. Dayton’s aforementioned anti-pedestrian legislation is just one hour away.

The way we talk about mobility is a form of mobility planning in itself. What if instead of smart city challenges, nationally-funded departments encouraged smart network challenges, and explored new ways in which regions could work together? What if instead of reality-cushioned ‘traffic accidents’ we more commonly referred to these incidents as car crashes? What if our legislation prioritized pedestrians and cyclists rather than giving cars the right of way? By questioning terminology, we can all participate in working towards a mobility mindset truly worthy of merit. Until then, be sure to look both ways.

 

Photo by takahiro taguchi on Unsplash