Pedestrians, sidewalks, jaywalking and other lies

Language, thought, culture and relations are best served by truth. It is hoped the following is heard, not as a pedantic rant, nor as another ‘politically correct’ weapon, but as an exploration shedding some light on our transportation system.

The history of ‘jaywalking’ is a tale of manipulation, and ultimately, one of deception.* The early automotive industry, in a rush to get people out of the way of their contraptions, tagged anyone crossing traffic in an uncontrolled manner as a ‘jay’, a naive, inexperienced country bumpkin who, being new to the city, does not know how to navigate the urban landscape. ‘Jaywalk’ is currently defined as: ‘to cross or walk in the street or road unlawfully or without regard for approaching traffic’. The ‘jaywalking’ concept is used to force crossings at intersections rather than mid block. It is claimed that crossing at intersections enhances safety. In reality, it places non-drivers in the most dangerous of areas, where traffic approaches from four or more directions. Mid block crossings generally require looking in only two directions. A truer, historically correct definition of ‘jaywalk’ is: ‘a pejorative term used by the early automotive industry to curtail the use of the commons by citizens’. 

The above paragraph, except in the current definition of ‘jaywalk’, intentionally avoids the use of the words ‘street’ and ‘sidewalk’. Together those two comprise a linear expression of ‘the commons’. Parks, libraries, civic buildings are also part of the commons, but not part of this conversation. The ‘street’ and ‘sidewalk’ have become tools of manipulation to control people. (Note the avoidance of the word ‘pedestrians’. Later.) Back when our streets were shared with horses, oxen and free range pigs the elevated wooden sidewalk was a great convenience to anyone wanting to keep clean their boots and long skirts. But today the sidewalk is a reservation for those indians not behind the wheel. Like ‘the bike lanes’, today’s sidewalks are used to keep people on the margin of the commons.  They scream “stay out of the way!”. They suggest that “if you are out of place and get hit, it is your own fault”. Engineers have now installed buttons on corner poles that must be pushed before lights change granting permission to get off the sidewalk and cross the intersection. That drivers do not have to use a ‘beg button’ to cross the intersection confirms the ‘separate, but not equal’ nature of mobility. This is transportation’s version of different water fountains for different classes of people. The commons is no longer shared.

And the word ‘pedestrian’….  One of the definitions of ‘pedestrian’ is: ‘plodding, boring, dull’. Alert to the use and manipulation of ‘jaywalker’, alert to the controlling nature of sidewalks, it has become irksome to hear citizens on foot referred to as plodding dullards. It is reminiscent of ‘jaywalker’, the country bumpkin who, lacking sophistication,  doesn’t know where to cross a ‘street’. What to use to replace ‘pedestrian’? Walker, ambler, perambulator, saunterer, peregrinator? Or how about the more inclusive (wheel chairs, children on skates,…) ‘citizen’ or ‘person’. Surely we can find a better term than the plodding dullard. 

Pedestrians, sidewalks, jaywalkers, streets and the commons. Language matters. 

*  If unfamiliar with the history of jaywalking, check out this video: