I’m currently down in Savannah, Georgia, at the meeting of the Governors Highway Safety Association. At an afternoon panel I was struck by a brief line of inquiry let out by Michael Ronkin. Briefly, he asked the audience to consider the word “pedestrian.” If you see someone coming down the hall toward you in an office, do you think of them as a pedestrian? If you were hiking in the woods and someone came walking along, would you say, ‘here comes a pedestrian’? The word pedestrian, Ronkin suggested, only makes sense in relation to traffic, and I suppose it’s a function of our auto-centric society that to do something we were born to do, indeed evolved over a long time to do, should be considered a “mode,” an “activity,” or some kind of “road user.”

Strange too is the confluence of its meaning; not just the sense of a walker but from the Latin pedester, meaning “plain, prosaic.” This contrasts with equester, i.e., one who goes by horse, which is decidedly not equated with the plain or prosaic. Was there even some kind of pre-automobile bias against people walking? I don’t have in front of me, but if any book would have an answer it’s presumably Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. The irony, of course, is now that it’s driving that’s become pedestrian, and walking which is novel.

Following the talk the group assembled for a “pedestrian safety walking tour” of the historic center (such an exercise would be futile in the suburbs) of Savannah, one of the country’s “ten most walkable cities” (in part because of the squares originally put in as part of a defense regimen, and one wonders here about a thesis to be written on military defense planning and walkable cities; i.e., medieval city walls as the original urban growth boundaries). Even walkable Savannah has its issues; Bay Street, for example, is 12% heavy truck traffic (to and from the port), lumbering down nine-foot lanes — as the city’s engineer explained it, people feel they are going faster than they really are, because of their size. Then there’s Paula Deen. Her “Lady and Sons” restaurant has become so popular (following her rise on TV) that massing waiting crowds often develop on the corners; the city eventually installed a four-way stop.

But once one is on the lookout for it, one realizes how strange that word — pedestrian — is; waiting at a marked crosswalk for vehicles to stop — some do, many don’t (though the city has seemed more concerned with jaywalking than “failure to yield” by vehicles) — one sees huge signs, warning those same drivers to “Stop for Pedestrians.” I thought, ‘wait, who’s a pedestrian? Is that me?’ Simply by going out for a walk I’ve become this strange being, studied by engineers, my rights presumably codified by signs (why not: “Stop for People”). On the same signs were often attached additional signs advising not to give to panhandlers (and call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace (in some places you might be considered the menace).

Lastly, I wanted to check out a restaurant that had been recommended. I punched it into the maps app on the iPhone, and noted that the default setting for giving directions, and journey times, is for car. The time mentioned was 3 minutes. Walking, the third option, was 9 minutes. I doubt that the time listed for car includes walking to the car — that moment when all of us become pedestrians — finding parking at the destination, walking to the destination.

This entry was posted on Monday, August 31st, 2009 at 7:24 pm and is filed under Pedestrians, Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

Please send tips, news, research papers, links, photos (bad road signs, outrageous bumper stickers, spectacularly awful acts of driving or parking or anything traffic-related), or ideas for my Transport column to me at:

For publicity inquiries, please contact Kate Runde at Vintage:

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For speaking engagement inquiries, please contact
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For UK publicity enquiries please contact Rosie Glaisher at Penguin.

Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



August 2009

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