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Are Sidewalks for Pedestrians?

June 13, 2017
By Jim Sallis

 

This post first appeared on the America Walks blog: http://americawalks.org/are-sidewalks-for-pedestrians/.

At America Walks, we are committed to people-first design. Unfortunately, in practice in many communities across the US, individuals are not prioritized on our streets and sidewalks.  Dr. Jim Sallis explores the topic in this guest blog post on the growing trend of motorized rideables on our sidewalks, an added element that has the potential to knock down the pedestrian yet another peg on the hierarchy of users. Dr. Sallis reminds us all that we need to be vigilant to this trend and others that create spaces where people who walk feel uncomfortable or threatened. Take action—add your voice to the growing walking movement, make such topics issues for local government to address, and educate yourself as to the rights you have (or should have) as a pedestrian.


 

The answer to the question should be an obvious “yes”, and among advocates for walking the answer is “YES”. But in reality the answer is becoming “no” more and more often. Technology is disrupting businesses of many kinds, replacing jobs that have benefits with gigs, making it cheaper to be driven around town, and delivering everything so you can stay home all the time playing computer games. Now technology is taking aim at disrupting sidewalks. I guess we should not be surprised.

I was alarmed 10 years ago when Segways promised to revolutionize transportation. They were able to change laws in many cities to make them legal occupants of sidewalks. However, they never really took off due to cost, and maybe people could not figure out where or how to park them. But you can count on technology to “progress”, so just in the past couple of years I have noticed a profusion of new personal transport devices showing up on sidewalks. First there were “hoverboards”, that were very small, brightly colored, and popular with children. Unfortunately they developed a habit of catching on fire. But there are many more choices now.

There is a new category of products called electric rideables. I have seen electric skateboards, numerous versions of two-wheeled hoverboards, single self-balancing wheels that whiz you along, three-wheeled devices, electric scooters you stand on, electric scooters you sit on, and apparently dozens of segway-type gizmos. There are websites devoted to this rapidly expanding category and lots of reviews. Google it. This has to be a great business opportunity because everybody hates to walk, don’t they?

For those few of us who still enjoy actual low-tech walking, it seems like we need a place to do it. That place is most often the sidewalk. And that is where I have been seeing these “rideables”. This brings up many questions. Is it legal for the rideables to be on the sidewalk even though they typically move faster than pedestrians? Are riders liable if they injure a pedestrian? How do pedestrians like sharing the sidewalk with rideables? Will pedestrians be driven off the sidewalk by rideables? That couldn’t happen, could it?

One of my favorite magazine articles of the last few years was in the Smithsonian in 2014.  It described how car companies invented the crime of jaywalking in the early 20th century to keep pedestrians out of the street so cars could take over. The car companies wrote the laws and lobbied city councils to pass them, with the noble intent of protecting pedestrians. The less-noble real intent was to stop the bad publicity created by cars killing and maiming people every day. To add insult to injury they chose the name “jay” which meant hillbilly or bumpkin. The implication was that smart and sophisticated people drove, and ignorant people walked.

So, as cars took over the road, pedestrians were driven out of the street. Could we see rideables take over the sidewalk, making pedestrians obsolete? There’s nowhere else for pedestrians to go. Filling the sidewalks with rideables would be great for business, so maybe we have to give up. We don’t want to threaten the jobs of rideable-makers do we? You can’t stand (or walk) in the way of progress.

Is the motorization of sidewalks on the agenda of walking advocates? It should be. Walking on the sidewalk is in the process of being disrupted by new technology. These small businesses are planning their growth. It looks like a clash of technology and profit versus health and quality of life. Taking a walk is usually the high point of my day. Taking a walk is the healthiest thing most people do in a day. What will be the effect on pedestrians of sidewalks filling with rideables? Whose interests will determine whether rideables become legally protected? As advocates for walking it is up to us to start asking these questions.