Tom Vanderbilt, author of “Traffic”, on “The Crisis in American Walking”

Slate is in the midst of publishing a four-part series by Tom Vanderbilt, author of the acclaimed book Traffic, about pedestrianism — or just plain old walking — in America.

Vanderbilt’s opening from part one — The Crisis in American Walking; How we got off the pedestrian path — might be especially interesting to readers here in Savannah:

A few years ago, at a highway safety conference in Savannah, Ga., I drifted into a conference room where a sign told me a “Pedestrian Safety” panel was being held.

The speaker was Michael Ronkin, a French-born, Swiss-raised, Oregon-based transportation planner whose firm, as his website notes, “specializes in creating walkable and bikeable streets.” Ronkin began with a simple observation that has stayed with me since. Taking stock of the event—one of the few focused on walking, which gets scant attention at traffic safety conferences—he wondered about that inescapable word: pedestrian. If we were to find ourselves out hiking on a forest trail and spied someone approaching at a distance, he wanted to know, would we think to ourselves, “Here comes a pedestrian”?

I remember when Vanderbilt was in town for that conference in 2009. We briefly corresponded after being jointly contacted by a mutual friend, and I tried to get the city to add him to a program that included walkability expert Dan Burden.

After delving into the etymology of the word “pedestrian” and noting its pejorative use, Vanderbilt continues his story from Savannah:

To this day, Ronkin was intimating, the word pedestrian bears not only that slightly alien whiff, but the scars of condescension. This became clear as we walked later that evening through the historic center of Savannah. As we moved through the squares, our rambling trajectory matched by our expansive conversation, we were simply people doing that most human of things, walking. But every once in a while, we would encounter a busy thoroughfare, and we became pedestrians. We lurked under ridiculously large retroreflective signs, built not at our scale, but to be seen by those moving at a distance and at speed. Other signs reinforced the message, starkly announcing: “Stop for Pedestrians.” I thought, “Wait, who’s a pedestrian? Is that me?”

It was at just such a crossing in 2009 where a Swedish visitor, Nils Eric Svensson, was killed in a crosswalk as he walked north across Oglethorpe Avenue at Bull Street. He was part of a group of 30, who clearly had the right of way, according to state law. But no charges were ever filed against the driver, and the Savannah metro police department responded with a draconian crackdown on pedestrians rather than a crackdown on drivers who routinely ignore the law regarding rights of way.

Back to Vanderbilt’s experience in Savannah:

we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America’s most “pedestrian-friendly” cities—a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me—one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.

Vanderbilt’s series is excellent (parts 2 and 3 have also been published — I’ll post excerpts and links soon), and explores some big questions:

This question—what is walking for—is one of the many I will be exploring this week. There is a dual pedagogical imperative here: I aim to explore not only how people on foot behave as a class, but also how America lost its knack for walking, only now taking some stumbling steps in the right direction.