Notes of a Militant Pedestrian

I wish all of the inhabitable world and all its streets were safely and comfortably navigable on foot. Even in the close-in suburb of New York City where I live, this is far from the case. It is as car-centric as American cities come. Yet I defiantly take to the streets in nothing but my old worn sneakers most of the time. I ride a bike and take the train to work/ school as well, but the vast majority of my movement around the world occurs on foot for me, and it occurs often, year round and with pleasure.

Of course around here I am a highly visible oddball for it, the only chronic African pedestrian in this Asian-American city without enough sidewalks for one man, let alone the 100,000 that live in this town. I know that on many of the routes I take, on minor sidewalk-less arterials paved too narrowly for the comfort of most through the woods and under railroads, most people would not choose to walk. It takes straight boldness to do it, since I don’t think I’m more courageous than anyone. But boldness should not be the prerequisite for living as if one’s community were built to human scale. In fact, take away the unfriendly roads and my town would appear to function at human scale – train station with express service to Manhattan, numerous produce stores, grocers, a major shopping mall, schools and more are all within 1-3 miles of my crib. If the streets were “complete streets” (sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming engineering, bike infrastructure and so on), it wouldn’t be only the bold that walked them regularly.

Seasons don’t change this condition of the streets and the local civilization’s transit patterns. To the die-hard pedestrian who lives standing up on his or her feet no matter what, human beings are hard to find in the streets of my town come summer or winter alike, but cars are always everywhere. I sometimes forget that human beings are even in those cars, in part because they are so rudely and aggressively operated. My conviction is that even the streets of my car-centric town are meant to move humans, whether they be on foot, on bicycles, in cars or buses. This means I don’t blink when the drivers honk at me for walking on the side of the road. At choke points where cars, cyclists and pedestrians have to share a narrow lane under a bridge, I don’t run when the motorists honk or speed by dangerously. I make them slow down like they’re supposed to. I don’t run in crosswalks either. It’s the law in New Jersey to stop “and stay stopped” as a motorist seeing pedestrians crossing streets. In fact I usually slow down to make sure the motorist knows he or she can’t intimidate me. I am always engaged in this sort of spiritual combat, testing the wills of impatient motorists and quietly thanking the ones that still have a sense of decency and humanity.

I am obviously of the opinion that automobile reliance is rather dehumanizing, both to the motorist who fails to realize that he or she is at some point also a pedestrian, and to the pedestrian who is often forced to move with trepidation and paranoia. But I do challenge myself to acknowledge and remember the humanity of drivers. It is not easy. I only wish that more motorists remembered that pedestrians are dignified humans with their own right to the safety and their few feet of breathing room on the road. We’re all human beings here.

Perhaps, until “complete streets” are unveiled everywhere, driver’s ed lessons should stress slowness. Slowness must become a virtue for prospective motorists, and motorists must be drilled and drilled with the notion that the road is for all human beings. It is not only for those operating the heavy, speeding, polluting and overly-deployed, overly-relied upon heavy machinery embodied in automobiles.

People would do well to rely more on their own bodies for transportation, simply because it’s natural. Am I living more like an ancient paleo-human just because I do this in this car-centric North-American wasteland? To admit as much would be amazingly silly – I’m just an ordinary man and far from a primitivist. But it seems like radicalism to be the hardcore pedestrian that I am. I embrace the radicalism – people always tell me they saw me walking here or there around town. But it shouldn’t be just the special eccentric character that some people take me for who walks a lot. And it shouldn’t require an exercise in boldness or radicalism to be hyper-mobile on foot.

My train station is a mere mile away from my home – 15 minutes on foot at a healthy pace. I would never think of doing anything but walking or biking there, and I’ve had that mindset as long as I’ve lived around here. But to many folks around here, including folks I live with, that’s an unwalkable distance. That’s partly a result of the unpleasantness of sidewalk-less roads and highways one might take to get there from here (unless one knows the shortcuts through the woods and neighborhoods), but I think the conceptualization of acceptable walkable distances is pretty warped out here. In high school I ditched the school-bus so I could walk the two+ miles to get there – loved every minute of it. My concepts were already broad enough to embrace walking around several miles every day even back then. If I could have that mindset as a young teenager, it can’t be impossible for others. I think that the culture at large would do well to begin to condition itself that it’s okay to walk a mile or two and it is a healthy and pleasurable discipline to give oneself the extra time to do it.

Walking is among the most natural expressions of our humanity. Bipedal creatures like us were literally born to walk upright. When humans spread across the continents from Africa, much of it was done walking. Why should walking be seen as an abnormal, radical or undesirable behavior? I live to walk. For those of us born with two good working legs, walking is our birthright, our native activity. It’s unfortunate that I am writing today to call upon the culture to re-remember this essential truth and normalize walking.

I hope Manhattanites and Newarkers feel me too. You have side-walks and hella foot traffic compared to where I dwell, but you also have hella shit-heads and car-centric road design and behavior. It sucks almost as bad sometimes when I’m over there, but at least there’s a critical mass of people moving at human scale over there too.

I’m not saying all of society should completely slow down, that all of the uses of automobiles are illegitimate, or that pedestrians should have free rein on the New Jersey Turnpike. But I do adamantly advocate for the complete streets and human-scale infrastructure necessary for more people to come out and feel safe to walk. I also demand a serious moderation and mellowing of the culture surrounding the automobile, along with a rethinking of how motorist attitudes are conditioned for speed, selfishness and callousness.

Too many motorists are engaging in straight-up asshole behavior out there. Your antics will never stop me from walking these streets. I will not apologize if my bipedal presence on the streets, my actualization of our common native activity, offends you and forces you to slow down. Homie, do slow the fuck down! The streets are for human beings! Remember, you are one of them and so am I!

Fellow humans, resume walking as your natural-born tendency. The lead foot is best used to pound pavement, not burn rubber and gasoline.


4 responses to “Notes of a Militant Pedestrian

  1. “I don’t run when the motorists honk or speed by dangerously. I make them slow down like they’re supposed to.”

    Chuuch. People so easily forget that stopping while a pedestrian is crossing isn’t some kind gesture of a driver’s (limited) generosity. Driving is a privilege, and so is being on the road. But with such a weapon like a motorized vehicle, there’s always that power imbalance, the very real threat that a car can kill a walker with the slightest nudge of the gas pedal. I think that’s possibly a part of the arrogance in driving, plus that need for speed (“OMG, why can’t you move from 0–60 in breakneck speed when you’re crossing like I can?”).

    But I don’t think speeding is necessarily do to the culture surrounding the automobile, I think it’s an aspect of today’s general American culture (can’t speak for elsewhere). Everything has to zoom, flash, jump, or blink, or it’s not interesting (because we all seem to have ADHD). I think something’s in the water.

    I’m a power walker/biker/shopping-cart navigator/etc., that’s just how I am. I don’t drive, at all, but I’m always about moving as fast as possible—except when I’m explicitly enjoying the scenery or not running late. (Hm, maybe that’s what it is). I live in a suburb where I’m usually the one grumbling under my breath about the slow drivers while I’m waiting for my turn to dart across the street (possibly/possibly not jay-walking). And then they have the gall to actually stop and wait for me—even when it’s a green light for them! I’m from LA, where walking is either an art of a death threat, and drivers are nasty as hades. I didn’t even walk all that much there, but I guess that attitude has carried with me. Now, I’m constantly taken aback when I encounter drivers who are waiting for me at an intersection when I’m still a mile away.

    But I agree, mid- and big-city folk often don’t do enough foot-based moving. In the summer a few people see me on my bike and say “Nice day for a ride, huh?” LOL, I ride every day, even when it’s pouring. The past week I’ve been walking, though—My beloved bike is on life support right now, and I’m thinking about pulling the plug and getting something…less prone to breaking.

    There’s a movement for more pedestrian-friendly urban (re)designing. I can’t find my sources, but I know that many people are re-recognizing the importance and convenience of structuring living spaces with amenities within walking distance. It might be too late for old, established locales, but I do hope these architects are looking into clever ways of fixing these broken cities.

    • Holy crap, I wrote an essay. Sorry for being so mouthy!

    • I agree, the culture at large is a restless one that can hardly tolerate things being done at a leisurely or modest pace. I don’t necessarily have a big problem with this except where such attitudes make it impractical for most people to feel safe when doing something as simple as walking the streets. There’s something massively stupid and annoying about the values system and the physical infrastructure of this society that privileges and encourages the most unsustainable and aggressive behaviors and attitudes, even in such ordinary activities as how one moves from place to place. The prestige of automobiles or of ceaselessly breaking the speed limit is lost to me. Thus folks like us are the oppositional ones, especially since we don’t even aspire to that nonsense.

      Of course we are not alone who see active lifestyle and non-motorized infrastructure choices as wise ones. I check out for transit/ped/bike-friendly infrastructure and policy news. I keep an eye on non-profits/ lobbyists like League of American Bicyclists, America Walks, National Center for Bicycling & Walking, American Association of People with Disabilities, American Public Transportation Association, etc. I am very wary of schemes like “new urbanism,” which tends to only work for the rich, in gentrifying communities, etc. The egalitarian transformation of existing attitudes and infrastructure is the only sustainable way to make the town and city friendly places for walking again. If a scheme to improve livability isn’t rooted at the grassroots, doesn’t improve quality of life for workers, black folks and people of color, folks with mobility challenges or disabilities, children, the elderly or the poor, I don’t want to hear about it; it’s probably just glamour for the already well-heeled who own cars anyway.

      I study trends indicating that in general, younger people are increasingly eschewing the automobile-based lifestyle. This makes sense – it takes a lot of indoctrination to convince people that operating heavy machinery is the preferred way to get around for even the shortest trips. And that sort of brainwashing can’t forever withstand common sense, the discomfort of growing up in communities without public transit or even sidewalks, or the realities of pollution, climate change and unsustainable sprawl. Younger cats are getting it at a visceral level, and thus I see some hope moving forward as we enter politics, advocacy and activism.

      As Africans, we must be accutely aware of how the North American model has been exported all over the planet, with car prestige making African and other third-world cities disastrously unlivable and unsafe. Having lived in Accra and visited Lagos and Port Harcourt, it was highly evident that much of the modern, post-independence infrastructure has been envisioned, quite narrowly, for the automobile alone. Especially in Lagos – at least the other two cities have their quiet pockets and moments (but they are not off the hook by any means). So, meaningless traffic fatalities between motorists, of pedestrians, and so on are an awesome dilemma facing the megacities of the global south. Attitudes and infrastructure that imagine the automobile as the only symbol and exercise of “development” or “modernization” have to be demolished, in Africa and North America alike. China’s seven-day traffic jams are not a sign of human progress to me.

      So the movement for livable urban life must be local as well as global. We have to normalize walking and cycling again. Walking is such a normal human activity, or at least it should be, and so it’s ironic that it has to be popularized, in part, to make it attractive again (aside from laying down the relevant infrastructure). Walking has to be re-branded as a sophisticated and progressive activity, perhaps. As unpopular in the mass culture as it may seem now, folks putting down the car keys and getting on their feet are urgent public health and environmental matters, as far as I can tell – to not do so would only prove how stubborn and stupid American Civilization must be at heart.

      I increasingly envision moving south (FL, NC, MD, GA?) once I get on the other side of my next stint of grad school (would make me part of the new great “reverse migration” trend). Yet, even where it’s warmer, pedestrians and cyclists generally do not fare any better than up in Jersey. In fact, NJ is rated among the most progressive states by the likes of the National Resources Defense Council, League of American Bicyclists, etc. (often only a couple states behind your fair-weather green-minded California). If NJ is whole rungs of echelons better where it counts than tropical Florida, then damn! Folks done lost their minds that wouldn’t want to build a walkable, bikeable society even where it’s warm year-round. Of course, as demographic and political trends shift in the US South and elsewhere, these tendencies are shifting with them, with vociferous livability campaigns currently underway down there. But it goes to show that weather (yeah NJ isn’t that cold but still) is not a factor in determining which parts of North America are more livable than others.

      Anyway, thanks for contributing, contemplating this matter and practicing the active, foot-based/ bike-based lifestyle daily – and in style! Always eager to hear your keen thoughts, sista.

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