The Tragedy of the Pedestrian


After injuries and deaths on Snelling Avenue in St. Paul, pedestrians are fighting back. Members of a local college have placed flags in buckets to aid the crossing of this busy street. However, a man on a soapbox – a man who’s opinion is not unpopular with the voting public – thinks that these flags are a “stupid” idea.

“Everyone, motorists and pedestrians, is safest under the old tried-and-true etiquette, which worked for 100 years. Why we are trading the safety of the historic etiquette for a reinvention of the rules can be traced to the progressive idea that it is more important to feel good about change to convention than it is to understand the consequences of the change. Pedestrians have foolproof safety by waiting until the coast is clear to cross the street. Foolproof. It is understandable that the demonization of the automobile has resulted in brainwashing.”

This quote summarizes every adversarial conversation I’ve had about changing our transportation system. That being, it’s not about any particular design, but a mindset. It’s our human nature to become set in our ways. This is why towns will oppose things as simple as roundabouts when it’s clearly in their best interest. They aren’t used to them and don’t see a problem with what’s already there. So, why change?

Let’s take the above mentioned dangerous road: Snelling Avenue.

It’s urban. It’s suburban. It’s a highway. It’s a local street. It’s a lot of things. It tries to appease everyone and therefore, appeases no one. This is precisely why there have been so many unfortunate collisions.

The question can boil down to: who is to blame?

Do we blame the engineers and planners? They were the ones who built the five lane road designed for highway speeds through a historic walkable neighborhood adjacent a college where literally thousands of students live car free.

Do we blame the standards? Those apparently unbreakable rules engineers are skittish to challenge. Those standards that are written into law for which acquiring a variance requires the moving of both Heaven and Earth. Do we blame the professional organizations? The institutions in place to maintain the status quo, whether that be boosting membership, profits, or employment over that of the public’s best interest?

Do we blame local politicians? Those who refuse to take a stance because they’re more interested in not dealing with it, or merely don’t have the political willpower. Or, do we blame state politicians who keep blindly allocating money into reconstruction projects that local governments often times don’t even want?

What about the citizens? Those who’ve fully dove into car culture, one which has existed and has been subsidized to such a degree that all other alternatives are either unpleasant or simply not feasible. What about those citizens who see nothing wrong with a highway through a neighborhood, in so much as it isn’t their neighborhood?

Do we blame the individual drivers? The ones who drive careless, distracted, or drunk. Those who have been classically conditioned to drive, drive, drive! But, who’s to blame them for driving? Have you tried to walk through our cities? They aren’t comfortable places, and it’s faster to drive. Plus, there’ll be free parking.

This brings me to the last question: what about the pedestrians?

To address the soapbox:

  • Why do they think orange flags will make a difference? They don’t have great expectations. What we’re seeing is one of the few responses that people can take in a systems that’s relegated them to second class citizens.
  • Why are they challenging a system that’s worked well for 100 years? The system hasn’t worked well. That’s the point. It's deadly for drivers and pedestrians alike.
  • Why do the “virtuous’ hate cars more than they care about kids’ safety”? They don’t. They walk precisely because they do care about safety. Ironic, but yes, the  most dangerous and life-threatening thing you can do to your child is put them into a car [CDC].

If you’re curious how deep our cultural misunderstanding goes, look no further than billboards sponsored by the Minnesota DOT proclaiming, “Hey Walkers … Distracted Walking is Dangerous Walking”.

Meaning, someone thinks that distracted walkers – not distracted drivers – are causing all these deaths on our roadways. The clueless nature gets worse when you consider the platform for advertising (an auto-oriented billboard) is specifically designed to appeal to motorists, not pedestrians. By the way, this isn’t the work of an organization that doesn’t care. It’s the work of an organization that doesn’t get it.

In the end, asking who is to blame is an unfair question. It’s the structure of the system that’s created these outcomes and we’re all bit players; and it’s a tragedy that befalls the pedestrian. We’ve spent the better half of a century making all non-automobiles second-class citizens. This has seeped into our culture understanding of transportation so deeply that virtually nothing else matters.

We’ve created a vicious cycle. We changed our landscape to accommodate cars, but in doing so we made it inhospitable to be anything else. But now, why should we expand pedestrian facilities? Because, you know, nobody walks anymore.

What to do? I suggest starting small. Pick up an orange flag and cross a street. That's how revolutions get started.