Opinion-Consider the Pedestrian

By mantunes

Three years ago, at the intersection of Mulberry Street and Raymond Boulevard, a taxi hit me. I don’t talk about it much, but I still suffer from the physical effects of being hit by a two-ton piece of metal. The driver’s car launched me several feet onto the asphalt. Miraculously, I got up, bumped and bruised, and was able to walk onto the sidewalk in one piece. I was astounded when I realized I had to convince the taxi driver to pull over and deal with what he had just done. Even his fare, an out-of-towner trying to get to the airport, found the whole incident perplexing. The driver seemed to think that hitting me was inconsequential, a mere bump and not worth pulling over his car for. I plopped on to the curb as I waited for the police and ambulance to show up, feeling every breath as I took them in. As the physical trauma subsided, the mental trauma only solidified into determined anger. 

I was walking in the crosswalk with the right-of-way and along the flow of traffic. It was early evening in the summer, not the brightest it gets in Newark, but not pitchblack either. On top of that, the car came from behind my field-of-vision. And, yet, when I talk about the incident, I invariably get push back: that this was somehow my fault, that I should have been looking both ways (as if I weren’t), that I shouldn’t have had my headphones in, that I should have been more cautious on the streets of Newark.

That I have to explain myself every time I bring up my story shows the problem with being a pedestrian in Newark. There is an attitude  of ‘we live in a world built for cars,  and we just have to live in it’. There are double standards in how we talk about pedestrians and motorists. The clearest example of this double-standard is the way we view cars and pedestrians on the street. Whenever a driver blocks a crosswalk while waiting for a light, causing pedestrians to dangerously tango around them, there is never a rush to give them a ticket or chide them for this rude (and actually illegal) behavior. Yet, when a pedestrian deigns to use the crosswalk they are entitled to, cars refuse to stop, honk their horn, and even press on the gas while pedestrians are in the crosswalk. Using the threat of the blunt force of a car to scare and keep pedestrians from crossing (the classic behavior of a bully) is considered normal and appropriate behavior.

The culmination of this car-centric culture isthe city’s most aggressive attempt to solve what it sees as the cause of accidents: pedestrians. In August, the city announced that it would take a bold stance in deterring the recent uptick in accidents. Rather than upping traffic enforcement, however, the city’s response was to put up flimsy pedestrian shaming signs telling them that “they too can prevent road accidents.”Granted, this campaign put to use a paltry $15,000 from the Department of Transportation. But, in the official eyes of the administration, the persistent double parking, the dearth of public transit options, the constant blocking of bike lanes, the dangerous running of red lights—all of which have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic—are not the problem. The humble walker is. 

Pedestrians are important to the health and vibrancy of any city. There is nothing more designed for pedestrians than the dense, close knit streets of a heavily urbanized downtown. When people feel like they can walk around, they are more likely to linger and patronize the panoply of businesses and experiences our city has to offer. However, when they feel threatened, when it is too difficult to walk from Point A to Point B, or when you shame pedestrians into thinking that they are part of the problem, they are likely to get the message that they too should stick to their cars and further compound the problem.

The solution is weirdly obvious and simple. Newark needs to focus on two things to bring pedestrian accidents to their lowest levels: first, double down on pedestrian friendly development, and, second, change this city’s culture around driving. 

A huge part of what makes pedestrians feel unsafe is the design of the roads and sidewalks that criss-cross our city. If, as a driver, you are ever upset that someone is crossing in the middle of the road away from an intersection, look around. Odds are there isn’t a crosswalk for hundreds of feet.  Similarly, whenever major construction occurs, it is considered acceptable to shut down a sidewalk for months on end. To shut down a street for weeks or months on end would be considered an unacceptable violation. How pedestrians get around cannot be an afterthought. Every time a development is planned, how pedestrians and other users of shared road space (like those with mobility devices) will actually use that space should be front and center. We also just need to construct more crosswalks and pedestrian access points, even if this “slows down” traffic. 

All this development and construction will be meaningless unless we address the culture around driving in this city. Whether it is through enforcement or through social pressure, we must think of cars as  responsible members rather than the apex predator of the transportation ecosystem. That will mean not being afraid to give a ticket when a car refuses to yield at a crosswalk. It also entails recognizing that cars need to slow down when not on highways, that just because you have a green light does not mean you can press as fast on the gas pedal as you want. Most importantly, it means getting drivers to remember that they must share the roads equitably with pedestrians.

Sometimes I wonder if being hit by the taxi (and being able to walk away from it) was a good thing. It has given me the resolve to talk openly about just how unpleasant it is to be a pedestrian in this city, but also the determination to make sure that the pedestrian isn’t sidelined. 

Featured image by Pexels