pedestrian politics

According to Will Self, writing in The Guardian Online on 31 March 2012, walking is a political act. It is a way of reclaiming the streets from the power of the car, of asserting the body and its workings in the face of a society increasingly reliant on motor vehicles, and ever more integrated with broader corporate interests.  

Slate, meanwhile, has a whole week of articles on pedestrians and the art – and act – of walking.  Its author, Tom Vanderbilt, starts from almost the same premise as Self, noting that: “walking in America has become: [a]n act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text.” But Vanderbilt uses his article to explore the idea of the pedestrian at a conceptual level: why is it that walkers have been reduced to pedestrians, and what are the implications of this?

The politics of walking is a discussion that we have every winter here in St. John’s – who has full winter citizenship rights in this city? Main roads – heck, even secondary roads – are cleared quite quickly after a snowstorm, as our ever filling end of driveway can attest. Sidewalks, however, remain clogged, often for days.

City planners throw pedestrians like myself bones to chew on: they state that on ‘priority streets,’ one side of the sidewalk will be plowed. One side! Seriously? What would happen if they took that argument to drivers: “Folks, we’re going to ensure that on priority streets, we’ll plow one side of the street.” Can you imagine the uproar?

Things were a bit better this year. But one side of the street isn’t enough. And even that side isn’t done very quickly or very evenly. As a fully able-bodied individual, I find myself far too often walking less than a metre away from cars moving at 50-70 km/h. Imagine if I had a dis/ability. Or if I was less balanced on my feet. Or if I was walking with a child. Or carrying unevenly weighted bags?

But I walk in this city in winter as much as I can. Because walking is a political act. It is a statement that acknowledges – indeed asserts – that not all of us have cars, not all of us want cars, and not all of us want to be in cars. And it asserts that we have the right to safe passage in our city. Every time a car driver curses me as I slowly pick my way through the piles of ice and snow, I’ve reminded them that we exist.

Walking’s on the agenda all week at Slate. Care to join me for a stroll?


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