News

It's a cultural war: cars vs. pedestrians

Julia Keller
Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO--At first, Kevin McCarty sounds perfectly sane. His voice is neither agitated nor hysterical. He gives the impression of being completely in control of his faculties.

And then, this:

"We feel," he says, "that you should be able to walk safely in America."

Walk safely in America!?! Does McCarty realize just what sort of crazy radical nonsense he's spouting? Is he aware of the fact that contemporary life in this country is based upon the eternal, absolute and unassailable supremacy of the automobile? That all must bow to its speed, its power, its chrome, its ability to bully its way wherever it wants to go whenever it wants to go there?

Is he nuts?

He is not nuts. He is, in fact, the senior director of federal policy for the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group that ranks cities according to pedestrian safety and that asks, in effect, this question:

When you take a step, must you also take your life in your hands?

Sometimes, yes. After two decades of decline, pedestrian deaths are on the rise, according to a recent report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Between 2004 and 2005, pedestrians who died after being struck by cars rose from 4,675 to 4,881.

Chicago, as it happens, is not the worst place in the world to take a walk. It ranks 34th among the 50 largest U.S. cities when it comes to the danger level for those who choose to hoof it, McCarty notes, with No. 1 being Pedestrian Hell -- and that dubious distinction belongs to Orlando, Fla. The death rate for pedestrians in Orlando has jumped a whopping 117 percent in the past 10 years, McCarty says. Richmond, Va., and Memphis also are bad places to take a hike. (For the complete rankings and a description of how they're derived, see www.transact.org).

Aside from the raw numbers, however, there is something else afoot: The uneasy feel of walking in today's world, a world in which hulking SUVs and mammoth trucks seem stuffed into narrow streets like sumo wrestlers into negligees, leaving little room for the simple, humble pedestrian.

A world in which nervous little cabs dart around downtown corners, brushing back pedestrians at the curb like Roger Clemens in a bad mood.

A world in which wide-hipped buses making right turns on red come close enough to waiting walkers for those walkers to spot a pimple on a bus passenger's chin.

A world in which walking feels as risky as a skydive, a bungee jump or an investment in media stocks.

Not that pedestrians are always right; actually, they're often wrong. Pedestrians sometimes cross when they don't have the Walk light, or scamper out in the middle of the street for no apparent reason. Being a driver has its headaches, too. But in the ongoing squabble between drivers and pedestrians, the driver always has the edge. Pedestrians are permanently vulnerable.

And that's why, for anyone who has dared stroll in the midst of a moving thicket of motorized metal, the scene in "Midnight Cowboy" (1969) in which Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) crosses the street and must dodge an oncoming vehicle is so richly resonant: "I'm walkin' here!" he cries, and all humanity joins in his protest.

Because every pedestrian knows the instinctive feeling of outrage and umbrage: I am a human being. You are a car. If anybody flinches, if anybody is going to back off, then by God, it oughta be the inanimate object.

Moreover, we're shamefully hypocritical about walking. Everybody knows that it's good for us -- it lowers weight, blood pressure and fuel consumption, all with the same long strides -- but walking lacks status. It's not cool. It's not chic. It's a little ... well, downmarket, frankly.

The Tracy Chapman hit, after all, was called "Fast Car." Not "Quick Walk."

And then there's the old Teri Garr line. When you try to take a stroll in Los Angeles, the actor pointed out, people keep pulling over and asking if they can call AAA for you.

For "Los Angeles," substitute "the entire car-obsessed country," and you'll have it about right. We are a nation of drivers, not walkers.

Hence walking in downtown Chicago, despite our not-too-bad numbers when it comes to pedestrian peril, is pretty much like walking anywhere: It's more than a mere pastime.

Walking is an adventure, rife with the unsolicited drama of close calls with cabdrivers and toe-imperiling sideswipes by bus drivers. By the sense that one must constantly dodge motorists who seem to regard pedestrians as nuisances, not fellow humans.

"Being a walker is getting more difficult all over this country," declares Chris Balish. "It's very frustrating to be a pedestrian. You follow the rules, you cross at the crosswalks, and drivers still disrespect you."

Balish should know. He lives in a car-free personal universe, having given away his gas-huffing hunk of metal and dedicated himself to walking or riding his bicycle. His book "How to Live Well Without Owning a Car: Save Money, Breathe Easier, and Get More Mileage Out of Life" (Ten Speed Press) was recently published, in which he argues on behalf of those funny-shaped objects attached to the ends of your legs: i.e., your feet.

He knows, though, that it's an uphill battle -- and just try walking uphill. "In 2000, there were 215 million registered vehicles in the U.S.," says Balish, rattling off the numbers as rhythmically as if he's taking a quick step with every digit. "By 2010, there will be 262 million vehicles. That means more thousand-pound metal projectiles on the street."

And those projectiles often are controlled by people more oblivious to walkers than ever before, Balish says. "The big challenge for pedestrians is all the distractions competing for a driver's attention these days -- cell phone, hundreds of channels on satellite radio, in-car DVD players, even the mocha latte and cinnamon muffin.

"Ninety-nine percent of drivers aren't bad people," he adds. "They're not trying to be obnoxious. They're just distracted."

Balish's advice to walkers: "Try to make eye contact with the drivers. And be careful when drivers are making a right-hand turn. Drivers are looking left. Heads are turned all the way left."

McCarty's organization soon will release its latest report on how pedestrians fare in American cities, he says. "Getting this pedestrian thing right is absolutely crucial," he believes. "Walking is the backbone of all transportation." To get to a train or a bus, that is, you have to walk. In the Chicago area, he reports, about 3 percent of the population walks to work. In New York, it's close to 6 percent.

"Walking," he adds, "is the cheapest trip you can do."

And yet sometimes, you risk the highest price of all -- injury or death -- in order to do it.

-- -- --

(Tribune correspondent Nicholas Leider contributed to this report.)

-- -- --

WALKING: STREET STATS

In its 2004 report "Mean Streets," the Surface Transportation Policy Project, a lobbying organization, noted that "walking remains the most dangerous form of transportation, and some areas of the country are becoming markedly more dangerous."

Some 52,000 pedestrians have been killed by cars in the past decade, the report stated.

The top four most-perilous cities in which to walk are all in Florida: Orlando; Tampa; West Palm Beach; and Miami-Ft. Lauderdale.

The STPP recommends that community leaders focus on pedestrian safety by slowing traffic and enforcing speed limits, and improving sidewalks and signals.

In previous years, the U.S. Department of Transportation has reported:

Most pedestrian deaths occur in urban areas.

Older walkers are most at risk.

Most pedestrian injuries and deaths happen between 6 and 9 p.m.

Friday and Saturday are the most perilous days for pedestrians.

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