Sidewalks used to be wonderful, exciting places. One could be a flâneur, described by Baudelaire in 1863:
The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flaneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite.
Not any more; Flânerie is now considered dangerous. The Culture of Fear, as Mikael Colville-Andersen called it, is spreading from the cycling world to the sidewalk. And just as fear campaigns have kept people off bikes, now it just seems like they are being used to keep people off sidewalks. Mikael has written:
The Culture of Fear is a nasty bitch. Destructive to our societies. It is, however, rather easy to trace where messages come from. In this case, it’s the darling of the automobile industry… Basically, if you feel the need to advertise reflective clothing for pedestrians and cyclists, you are advertising your complete ineptitude about building safe and liveable cities. You are shouting to the world that you believe cars are king and everyone else is at their mercy.
And if pedestrians are getting injured or killed, surely it must be the fault of the clothes they wear, the headphones or the worst crime of all, distracted walking. In the Wall Street Journal, Ben Zimmer writes:
If you are guilty of texting on a mobile device while walking down the street, you’re contributing to a growing phenomenon that poses some serious public-health risks, not to mention social pitfalls.
He links to a study by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons that looks at the issue of distracted walking and comes up with these horrible statistics of the awful things that pedestrians do:
88 percent are engaging in conversation
88 percent are listening to music
85 percent are using a smartphone
64 percent are generally “zoning out”
The AAOS says we are not taking this issue seriously enough. That we think it’s funny.
Despite the obvious risks associated with distracted walking, as many respondents believe it is “embarrassing (in a silly way)” as feel it is “dangerous” (46%). Furthermore, 31% say distracted walking is “something I’m likely to do” and 22% think distracted walking is “funny,” according to the study.
From first principles, the whole survey is a ridiculous push-poll by even considering the false equivalence of distracted driving, drunk driving and distracted walking. Two of the three involve controlling a vehicle at high speed that kill lots of people who are not in the car; the distracted pedestrians put at risk at worse, themselves. To even ask the question in this manner distorts the result for distracted walking. I am surprised a responsible firm like IPSOS would have the nerve.
The survey itself tells the story; thousands of people die or are maimed, through no fault of their own, from distracted or impaired driving. But note that 26 percent of the people interviewed in the survey have had an incident of distracted walking, with horrific injuries:
But because of this, they have come up with recommendations about how we should act when we are out there in the killer sidewalks. They have even made a video in which they "humorously, but effectively, highlight what can happen when pedestrians focus on anything or anyone other than the task of safely getting where they need to go." I include the whole list so that I cannot be accused of just cherry-picking the hilarious ones:
- If you must use headphones or other electronic devices, maintain a volume where you can still hear the sounds of traffic and your surroundings.
- While you walk, focus on the people, as well as the objects and obstacles in front of and around you.
- Don’t jaywalk. Cross streets carefully, preferably at a traffic light, remaining cognizant of the pedestrian traffic flow and the cars and bikes in and near the road.
- Look up, not down, especially when stepping off or onto curbs or in the middle of major intersections; and/or when walking or approaching on stairs or escalators.
- Traffic can be especially busy during the holidays—stay alert in mall and other parking lots, and on and near streets, especially during the winter months when it gets dark earlier.
- If you need to talk to a child or the person next to you, make a phone call, text or other action that could distract you from the goal of getting where you need to go safely, stop and do so away from the pedestrian traffic flow.
So basically now, there is no more being a flaneur. No more enjoying the street, looking around, talking to friends, zoning out, listening to a few tunes. You have to keep your eyes on the sidewalk, straight ahead, and if you want to talk to someone, even your kid, pull over.
Now they are orthopedic surgeons and no doubt they mean well. But really, walking is supposed to be fun, it's really healthy, and it actually builds stronger bones, which one would think would be their first interest. They should be promoting walking, instead of turning it from a joy into a war zone, and ignoring the real issues.
UPDATE: But then again, as Mikael Colville-Andersen noted, the Culture of Fear is the darling of the automobile industry, and as one commenter found, The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers is a Diamond Supporter (More than $200,000) directed to public relations, so it all falls into place.
In New York City alone this year, fifteen pedestrians were killed while walking on the sidewalks by cars that jumped the curb. And really, they are actually worried about people walking and talking to their kids at the same time?