American traffic laws tell us pedestrians have the right of way. If you believe that, try walking across your city sometime. The way we lay out our roads, our shopping centers and even our houses makes it clear who’s really boss. It’s good old Otto Mobile.
Given that the car is king — for the time being, anyway — it’s up to us lowly bipeds to demand at least a token of respect from our planners, most of whom are fixated on catering to motor vehicles, and who treat pedestrians as an incidental annoyance. To that end, I offer a pedestrian’s Bill of Rights:
1. When traffic laws say pedestrians have the right of way, that shouldn’t just mean that if you’re hit by a car, it’s not your fault. People on foot shouldn’t have to fear, evade, negotiate or maneuver around cars, whether moving or parked, just because planners routinely put the convenience of people inside vehicles far above that of people using their own two feet.
2. No pedestrian should ever find that the only way to reach that store or office on foot is to cross a huge desert of asphalt, with moving cars threatening on all sides. Any parking area with more than two rows of stalls should be required to have a pedestrian walkway running down the strip where cars usually face off nose-to-nose. If these walkways reduce the space available for parking cars, well, boo-hoo — cars already take up 20 times as much space a person does. Enough is enough.
3. No pedestrian should ever be expected to cross more than four lanes of traffic, whether or not there are crossing signals present. The vast six- and even eight-lane-wide boulevards that are being imposed on more and more of our suburbs tear neighborhoods apart and form virtual Grand Canyons to people on foot.
Once and for all, planners should shake the wrongheaded belief that the way to fix traffic congestion is to make roads wider. This is like telling a four hundred pound man with a heart condition that what he really needs is some bigger pants. The wider we make our roads, the more traffic will arrive to fill them up, and the more impassable our cities will become to people on foot.
4. In dense urban areas, pedestrians should be free to shop, stroll or sightsee without constant threat of assault by cars, buses or taxis. Hence, planners should provide centralized public parking at the fringe of city cores, offer a shuttle service, and make downtown blocks pedestrian-only zones. Sedentary car jockeys would benefit from having to walk a few steps to get where they’re going, and the rest of us would be blessed with a quieter, greener and less-polluted city.
5. Lastly, American planners should recognize that, in relative terms, cars are a mere fleeting speck of technology on Planet Earth, like the chariot, the man-of-war and the steam locomotive. We bipeds, on the other hand, are hopefully here for the long run. It’s just plain dumb to continue building an entire nation around a machine that’ll likely be obsolete in 50 years — especially considering that, no matter what takes its place, we’ll always want to get around on our own two feet.