AT LEAST once a month I make a presentation to a civic organization, neighborhood association, class, or conference and one of my favorite slides is a 1901 photograph that depicts Bull Street looking south from City Hall.
Silhouetted figures are visible in the image. I like to aim my laser pointer at them and ask my audience, “What are these things out in the street?”
Someone will eventually respond, usually with a bit of hesitation: “Pedestrians?”
“Yes,” I say, “But back then they were called people.”
It’s a corny joke that I probably stole from someone (if it was you, please let me know so I can give you credit), but it usually gets a laugh and it’s a good way to ease into the topic of how our perception of streets and their uses changed in the early 20th Century.
My next couple of slides reference the excellent book, “Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City” by Peter Norton, a University of Virginia professor. In it he describes how streets, once considered public spaces, came to be dominated by cars in the years between 1915 and 1930.
This blurb sets the scene: “Before the advent of the automobile, users of city streets were diverse and included children at play and pedestrians at large. By 1930, most streets were primarily motor thoroughfares where children did not belong and where pedestrians were condemned as ‘jaywalkers’.”
That’s pretty much were things stand today. In fact, “Jaywalkers” is the second most popular response to my Bull Street photo gag. Norton explains that, “A jay was a hayseed out of place in the city; a jaywalker was someone who did not know how to walk in a city. Originally the term applied as much or more to pedestrians who obstructed the path of other pedestrians — by failing, for example, to keep to the right on the sidewalk. As autos grew more common on city streets, jaywalkers were more often pedestrians oblivious to the danger of city motor traffic.”
The weaponization of jaywalking shifted responsibility for safety away from drivers, who Norton notes were often described as “joy riders,” “road hogs” and “speed maniacs” behind the wheels of “juggernauts” or “death cars.”
What was once called a “motor killing,” we casually describe as a “car accident” today.
The effort to vilify people who walk has proven remarkably successful, durable, and adaptable. Today’s jaywalker is not a bumpkin overwhelmed by the swirl of city life, but a person staring at a smartphone while walking.
Campaigns warning against the alleged dangers of distracted walkers have benefited from the twin tailwinds of general angst over a society that seems to have surrendered to its screens and a spike in pedestrian fatalities.
Distracted walking has even been codified as unlawful in some jurisdictions. In Honolulu, “No pedestrian shall cross a street or highway while viewing a mobile electronic device,” under the terms of an ordinance passed last year. A similar law was passed in the Los Angeles suburb of Montclair earlier this year.
The problem is there’s not much data to indicate a clear link between distracted walking and increasing mortality rates, and at least one study suggests that distracted walking is not nearly as common as some believe.
What’s more, critics claim, the focus on distracted walking has shifted focus from much greater — and easily more verifiable — threats to public safety, which are the true causes of the rising death toll on our streets.
When a PBS “NewsHour” segment last week declared, “Pedestrian deaths are up nationwide, fueled by people who walk while drunk,” advocates for safer streets cried foul.
Among them was America Walks, a 20-year-old national organization that works to “improve walking and walkability for all,” which described the segment as “victim-blaming and a distraction from what we know causes people to lose friends, family, and neighbors on a daily basis. Poor street design, improper speeds, and a culture that prioritizes cars over people have created a landscape that continues to unnecessarily endanger the most vulnerable users of the public rights of way.”
Here in Savannah, there’s significant evidence to suggest street design does indeed play a role in crashes that kill and injure people who walk. In reviewing two years’ worth of Savannah Police Department media releases about people hit while walking, I found that almost 40 percent of the reports described collisions on just three streets: Bay Street, Ogeechee Road, and Abercorn south of DeRenne Avenue.
What do these three streets have in common? They are designed to function as highways, despite the fact that are located in urban areas. They are dangerous to people who walk, distracted or not.