Nfld. & Labrador·Point of View

Don't knock people who like to walk — literally

The sad fact is that pedestrians are still second-class citizens, writes Elizabeth Yeoman.

A couch on a sidewalk is called a hazard, but not the mountain of snow that sat there all winter

We need to build a culture that sees people using active transportation as having the same rights of access as drivers, writes Elizabeth Yeoman. (John Gushue/CBC)

Why do small, frail humans have to walk straight into the path of multi-ton steel clad transport trucks just to get to school, to work or to the corner store, even for a day or two?

We don't accept uncleared vehicle lanes even for a few hours.

How did we collectively decide that drivers had priority over pedestrians?

Getting around on your own power is one of the quickest, easiest and cheapest ways to improve your health and happiness, and reduce traffic congestion, smog and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The Canadian government defines "active transportation" as using your own power to get from one place to another. Some examples are walking, biking, wheelchairing and skateboarding. 

With all these benefits, why aren't more people using active transportation?

Maybe it's just human inertia but, arguably, two bigger reasons are poorly designed infrastructure and safety concerns. Culture and attitudes shape priorities, policy and behaviour relating to both of these.

But the sad fact is that pedestrians are still second-class citizens.

I thought I'd give some examples of how our collective thinking is flawed.  

Last December, I tweeted a photo of a truck bearing down on me as I walked in the vehicle lane beside an unplowed sidewalk.

I used the hashtag #nltraffic and the caption, "So stressful walking in these conditions!" Almost immediately, a response came in: "Is that today?" "No, two days ago," I responded. "That's not fair. It's plowed now," my new Twitter correspondent tweeted back.

I thought for a while about that notion of fairness.

Pedestrians looking to walk across this long crosswalk in downtown St. John's had to walk around this large mound of snow in the middle. (Andrew Sampson/CBC)

True, the City of St. John's had actually plowed the sidewalk in the meantime. As well, conditions for pedestrians are better now than they've ever been in the almost 30 years I've lived here, thanks to the efforts of activists, the media and city councillors.

But the sad fact is that pedestrians are still second-class citizens. I tweeted back, "What I think is unfair is that pedestrians should ever be forced into these dangerous conditions."

Sinkholes in my path

A few years ago, my son put an old sofa out on the sidewalk at the beginning of winter. He intended to move it, but snowstorm followed snowstorm and the sofa didn't emerge again until April.

No sooner had it reappeared than I got a letter from the city stating that if it wasn't gone in 48 hours I could be fined $5,000.

How did we collectively decide that drivers had priority over pedestrians?

I didn't have the means to get it moved that quickly so I called to ask for an extension until the weekend, which they kindly granted me. I asked why there was such a heavy penalty for something so seemingly minor.

"It's a hazard," was the reply.

The gentleman I spoke to didn't seem aware that there might be an irony there, since the sidewalks had been unavailable all winter, making the entire city one massive hazard for pedestrians.

Elizabeth Yeoman recently took her grandchildren for a walk, and gained some insight into what it must be like trying to get around with a wheelchair. (Submitted)

It's even worse in rural areas where they mostly don't have sidewalks at all — so pedestrians are forced into danger all-year long.

It seems to be spring now, at least here in St. John's, so it should be a whole lot easier to get around without a vehicle but, as a friend of mine used to say, "There are still some sinkholes in my path to perfect bliss."

Building momentum

I recently took my little grandson out in his stroller to enjoy the sunshine.

Using a stroller gives you some small insight into what it must be like trying to get around with a wheelchair: sidewalks used for storage of garbage or for parking vehicles; curbs that are too high or badly designed, forcing stroller and wheelchair users out into traffic at intersections; the same telephone poles that prevent sidewalk plows getting through in winter; and hiking trails that are supposedly wheelchair accessible but that I found pretty tricky with a stroller.

Is the safety of people using active transportation as important as the safety of those who choose to use private vehicles?

Is the answer obvious in the ways we design and manage our communities?

This includes everything from the layout and maintenance of sidewalks, bike lanes and streets, to by-laws and snow clearing policies to decisions about where to put schools, parks, shops and other services.

We need to build a culture that sees people using active transportation as having the same rights of access as drivers (or perhaps even greater rights, as currently proposed in Britain, since they're helping lower health care costs and reduce emissions, traffic congestion and parking problems).

We've started to do this.

We need to build momentum.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Elizabeth Yeoman is a professor in Education at Memorial University, a grandmother, a walking activist and a freelance writer.

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