One evening after my weekly choir rehearsal, a few other singers and I got to talking about how dangerously cars drive around pedestrians in our city (Milwaukee, WI). No surprises there; I’m sure your city is the same. We shared some ideas for how we handle this, but mostly we were just venting our frustration without any real strategies to make an oncoming car stop, even when we’re in a marked crosswalk. Then one of the women perked up and mentioned a cousin of hers who was European and had visited her last year. Nearly laughing at his audacity, she recalled the way her cousin handled cars when he was crossing the street: If a car approached him and didn’t look like it was slowing down, he would simply put up his hand in a “Stop” motion and miraculously, most drivers seemed to respond to this. (I suspect he comes from a country where cars are much more respectful of pedestrians to begin with.)
Well, I didn’t think this tactic was laughable at all. In fact, it reminded me of a class I took a couple years ago about sexual harassment in the workplace and on the streets. One lesson we learned in that class was that if someone is approaching you on the street and it makes you feel threatened, but you don’t want to engage the person in dialogue, you can simply put your hand up in the universal “Back Off” motion and many people will actually respect your wishes and leave you alone. If it works for people on the street, maybe it can work for people in their cars too.
After our conversation, I decided to try this tactic. As someone who doesn’t own a car and uses my feet to travel dozens of miles each week, I was willing to try anything. For the past month, I’ve been using it with much success. Any time I’m crossing the street and I see a car coming a bit too fast, I just put my hand up in the “Stop” gesture and make eye contact with the driver, asserting my presence (not to mention the legality of my actions). It’s worked surprisingly well. I don’t feel comfortable enough doing it on an extremely busy road where cars are traveling 35 or 40 miles per hour, but on city streets where cars are already frequently starting and stopping and should be anticipating pedestrians, this gesture is the extra support I need to make it safely across the road.
The other gesture that I’ve added to my normal walking routine is a nod and smile of thanks. Of course, I believe pedestrian safety should be a given, but since most drivers could care less about it, I like to acknowledge the ones that do respect my space and my life. I usually smile and mouth “Thanks” to a car that stops for me crossing the street so that they know their actions are appreciated and, I hope, continue to make pedestrian safety a priority.
Now, I wish I didn’t have to do any of these things. I wish walking across the street could be as easy as walking across my living room. But since the Strong Towns message hasn’t reached every corner of the country yet, I am using this tactic to help slow the cars that I encounter. Much like the cycling strategy of biking in the middle of a lane of traffic (instead of off to the side) in order to assert one’s presence, the “Back off” hand motion is my way of saying “I am here. Give me my space."
I encourage you to try it out. It seems so simply, yet it has made a big difference in my travels on foot and it’s just one more way to assert pedestrian rights.
Rachel Quednau is a Midwesterner currently working to end homelessness in Milwaukee, WI. She draws from her experiences living in New York City, Washington, DC, Walla Walla, WA and Minneapolis, MN to help her build better places wherever she is. Rachel writes for her blog The City Space, and also for Urban Milwaukee. One of her favorite ways to get to know a new city is by going for a run in it.