Whose Streets?

“Pedestrians should be loved; they are the better part of humanity.”
— Ilf and Petrov, 1931

The phrase “lowly pedestrian” did not arise until a person on horseback was there to look down at them. Before then, people were people. And just as dolphins swam and horses galloped, people walked.

When cars came along at the turn of the last century, walking people fell even lower down the hierarchy. This descent was encouraged by the advent of “jaywalking,” a marketing term coined by some clever admen who were being paid by automobile manufacturers. Jaywalking, literally meaning to walk like a rube, had the careful subtext that walking, in all its free-range glory, was only for bums who lacked the means to avoid it, and those bums should stay out of the good way of the cars.

Recently, Ford Motor Company took a page from this playbook to hasten the descent of walking people to a new low. They coined the word “petextrian” — the texting pedestrian.

“We were startled to see how oblivious people could be of a 4,000-pound car coming toward them,” explained Aaron Mills, a Ford safety engineer. “It was a real eye-opener to how distracted people are today.”

Never mind the 4,000-pound car. Never mind that distracted walking does not even come close to speeding and distracted driving as a leading cause of crashes, injuries, and deaths. It’s walking people, those oblivious obstacles, who are the real problem. Meanwhile, Mercedes, programming its first wave of autonomous cars, has decided to protect the car occupants at all costs, even when that means intentionally veering into pedestrians to keep the car from hitting an obstacle that could harm the driver.

Before the car, streets were for people: children’s play spaces and parents’ marketplaces. Today, the only time Americans see people in the street is at a protest. And for some politicians, the only thing worse than a “petextrian” is a protester.

Earlier this year, before a white supremacist drove into a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and before another in Portland, Oregon, tried to do the same, the North Carolina House of Representatives passed House Bill 330, which would grant civil and criminal immunity to drivers who hit people protesting in the street, as long as the driver says it was unintentional. State legislatures in Florida, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, and Texas have similar bills in development. If these bills pass, when a person walking in a protest is struck by a driver, it is the fault of the pedestrian, not the driver or their 4,000-pound car.

But you don’t need to be protesting, or looking at your phone, to be blamed for walking; you could just be black. In Ville Platte, Louisiana, three young black men were recently struck by a driver as they walked along a street without a sidewalk. The driver was not charged. The three young men were arrested for not wearing reflective clothing.

How do you solve a problem like the lowly pedestrian? Do walking people try to climb back up the totem pole, or do we topple it? The answer is on the front cover of this issue of Reclaim. It’s a picture of people, in the street, protecting a dangerous, unprotected bike lane with their bodies.

For 44 years, Transportation Alternatives has been changing how New Yorkers walk, bike, and drive. Often, our work is to pass new laws, to persuade city agencies to adopt new policies, or to convince City Hall to fund safe street redesigns — as we did recently, to the tune of $1.6 billion in the next five years. Our grassroots machine of brilliant volunteer activists is, according to D.O.T. Commissioner Polly Trottenberg, the most effective in the country. (You can check out her interview here.)

But our work is most effective when we are bravely in the street, whether we are biking to work, walking in a dangerous crosswalk, or using our bodies to protect the people of New York City. People have a right to use the street, to be in the street, to feel the street is their own — that is the heart of Transportation Alternatives’ mission.

In the current political moment, where progress on the federal level seems impossible, I am convinced that effective change starts here in our city. I am even convinced that our effectiveness can radiate out across the nation, as it did after we brought the nation’s first bike share system, first protected bike lane, first red light camera, first speed camera, and first Vision Zero program to New York City — all now replicated by cities across America.

With your free-time volunteerism, with your activism, and with your holiday season giving, it is time to get local. Right here, at home, is the only place we are going to get anything done. And together — sometimes even holding hands, physically protecting the bike lane — we can take back some space from cars. We can say loud and clear that the streets are for people — to walk, to bike, and to protest.