No Place To Run
(Or Even Walk)


by Michael Smith



Everybody knows that cars are the American civic religion, and a pedestrian's life isn't worth a plugged nickel on our streets. But worse is on the way. Vehicles are steadily taking over what little space pedestrians have left -- even indoors.

This development is most obvious in airports, where the proliferation of jitneys has turned passenger concourses into scale models of Columbus Circle. These conveyances are supposed to be for people who can't walk the long distances, but a population increasingly disinclined to walk at all is climbing aboard without any justification beyond simple sluggishness. One airline recently even advertised motorized transport to connecting flights for all passengers.

All North American airports are affected, but the very worst in my experience are the three in the New York area; not only are they operated by the car-mad Port Authority, but the vehicles themselves are in the hands of drivers from New York and New Jersey.

Grand Central Station, spectacularly handsome after its recent restoration, is badly compromised as a public space by a plague of motorized trucklets used by work crews. The pedestrian paths in our parks are increasingly hogged by work trucks, scooters, tractors, and police cars.

Even the sidewalks are not immune; during one of last winter's blizzards, I was making my huddled way down a snowswept Upper West Side street, when I was nearly jolted out of my parka by the blare of a truck horn -- behind me! It was a Barnard College grounds truck, with an eight-foot-wide snowplow blade attached, careening down the sidewalk at a breakneck pace. Most New York frontage owners still clear their sidewalks the old-fashioned way, by hand; but I fear it's only a matter of time before Barnard's example catches on.

No doubt some of this motor traffic is necessary. But a great deal of it is not; the managers of these spaces are operating -- on auto-pilot, you might say -- under the culturally prevalent unconscious assumption that whenever somebody goes somewhere, or something needs to be carried someplace, a motor vehicle must be involved.

It's bad enough that the few pedestrian refuges our society grudgingly grants are increasingly expropriated by motor traffic. But what makes it even worse is, once more, a cultural factor: the mentality of motor privilege.

In American society, motorists are systematically invested with greater rights than non-motorists; and this principle operates, it seems, whether the motorists are on the road or have invaded the hallways of a public building.

These indoor drivers are not only in our space; they are in our face. Not only are they going where they don't belong, but they're domineering and arrogant about it. They insist on going faster than pedestrians and they expect pedestrians to move out of their way; if the pedestrians don't oblige, they resort readily to the horn with which these off-road vehicles are invariably, and inexplicably, equipped.

Enough already. This has got to stop.

First of all, facility managers must start asking themselves the old question: Is this (motorized) trip really necessary? Can the workers walk to where they are going -- and carry their own tools? Or can they use a pushcart or a wheelbarrow instead of a truck? Airline passengers who really can't walk must be transported, of course; but those who can walk, should.

Second, in the few cases where a vehicle is truly needed, a code of conduct is also required. It's really quite simple:

1) Use the smallest possible vehicle that will do the job.

2) Never go faster than the slowest pedestrian in sight.

3) Never, ever, under any circumstances whatsoever, blow the horn.

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