Based on my roommate’s advice, I feel I should lead this with a disclaimer: I have strong, deeply-ingrained opinions about foot traffic that may be unfounded, but they are the basis for how I navigate sidewalks and streets. The stance I am taking on this may come across as combative, but that is only because I feel very strongly that people should be safe on the sidewalk, not just on the road, and this is my personal opinion on how to achieve and maintain that safety.
When I was a little kid, around four or five years old, I was pretty spacey. I tended to get lost in my thoughts and wander around without really looking where I was going, which often led to me walking into things, and even more often people. Much love to my parents, and especially my dad, who were not fans of this habit and were real tough nuts about it — if I wasn’t looking where I was going, they would point me in the right direction and frequently remind me to pay attention to what was in front of me, rather than what was at my feet or in the sky.
Now, 15 or so years later, I can’t help but pay constant attention to what’s around me when I’m going places, especially since I tend to rush places and need to dodge around all the people walking at a more normal pace. Nowadays, that attention has led me to one big, disappointing conclusion: people generally seem truly terrible at looking where they’re walking.
We’re constantly reminded not to text and drive, to stay off our phones at all times when behind the wheel. Where are the advertisements telling us not to text and walk? Seriously, with everyone carrying a computer in their pocket that pings every 20 seconds, and that little four-inch screen distracting us from the much larger world outside it at all times, it’s a wonder there aren’t more accidents involving people walking headlong into traffic with flappy bird or Instagram still blipping on their screens.
Not only should people avoid texting and walking, but you know how people often complain that cyclists ignore the rules of the road? Well, I think that the sidewalk has an analog for that. If drivers want to complain about bikes on the streets, bikers should be able to complain about pedestrians on the sidewalk because many walkers on the sidewalks tend to ignore these vehicles that are much faster, larger, and less maneuverable than their feet. I bike pretty much everywhere, and the number of times I’ve headed toward a group of people walking and have had to swerve out of their way even though they can move much more easily and quickly side-to-side than I can, is too damn high. I keep finding myself playing these games of chicken with people when I’m on my bike and they’re walking, and, to avoid running people over, I lose every time.
I’d like to propose a model of vehicle versus foot traffic I’m going to call the Scale of Maneuverability. Based on size, top speed, and side-to-side movement, this scale will go from least to most maneuverable: cars; bikes; those electric skateboards; those electric skateboards with only one wheel; skateboards; scooteres; roller-blades; unicycles (there are enough on this campus to warrant their inclusion); and lastly, walkers. The inverse of this list is the guideline for who I feel should move out of whose way when each heads toward the other. Basically, people walking are at the absolute top of that second list — they should definitely not stop in the middle of the sidewalk, text while walking, or walk four or five abreast and take up the entire sidewalk; rather, they should move out of the way of bikes and skateboards when necessary!
Roads have an endless array of rules for navigating: stop at traffic lights; don’t cross the yellow lines; drive on the correct side of the road; etc, etc ad nauseum. All of these rules are designed to make road travel as predictable and safe as possible. As long as you follow these rules, you get to your destination with little incident. It’s only once people start breaking or openly flouting them that we run into trouble. So why the heck don’t these rules carry over onto the sidewalks? We drive on the right side of the road, and generally people stick to this rule, yet people completely forget it once their feet touch concrete. People serpentine aimlessly back and forth, walk straight toward others heading in the opposite direction, stop suddenly and prolongedly, and ultimately make foot traffic as unpredictable as it can possibly get.
Next time you’re walking on the sidewalk, keep your eyes forward and off your phone, look where you’re going and at what’s around you, and always stay safe.