Recently I read a fascinating piece on the evolution of pedestrian and traffic rights. There was, evidently, once a time when the road was reserved primarily for the use of street cars and pedestrians. Automobiles were an unwelcome intruder on this territory, mowing down children with the temerity to play in the street as they had for centuries. The article claimed that the automobile industry at the time responded to the resulting public outrage by literally rewriting the rules of road, creating the idea that pedestrians should be confined to crosswalks, and that anyone who dared use the roads as they always had was a rube. This was before my time.
I am recent convert to riding my bicycle but a lifelong pedestrian, as we almost all are, albeit some of us in much more limited doses. I live in a large city, so the “couch to garage to garage to store” experience is rarely an available option. But I have lived in the suburbs, although I found the experience confining. And even in suburbs designed around the car, people walk in traffic, if only through parking lots. People are, at root, pedestrians. My children learned to walk before they could speak.
It was difficult for me to imagine a road without the right of way for cars. San Francisco offers many weekends where the streets are closed to cars in Golden Gate Park and for Sunday Streets, but although these are entertaining, they are places and times when cars are entirely absent. (And despite people’s avowed affection for their own cars, these events are very, very popular.) I cannot imagine a city where cars were still there, but placed on an equal footing with other road users. I think I would like that world.
San Francisco does, however, have a place where pedestrians act as though they lived in that world. That place is the Tenderloin. The Tenderloin is a grim wasteland in the middle of San Francisco. It is not just possible but probable that you will see people on the sidewalk shooting up while walking through, something that despite years of working with needle exchanges, I had rarely seen done without apology or restraint under the open air before moving to San Francisco. One evening when Matt and I were walking through the Tenderloin to a concert, a man walked up carrying a mattress, dropped it heavily on the ground in front of us, and then passed out on top of it. I have spent more time in the Tenderloin lately as part of my increased work with homeless shelters, which are packed into this part of the city as though they were kennels.
In the Tenderloin pedestrians largely treat traffic signals as optional, whether due to despair or to drugs. It’s rare that I’m willing to ride my bicycle in the Tenderloin (it would be stripped if I parked it), but I do walk there when I have meetings in the area and on occasion we drive through. And one thing you notice immediately is that drivers are typically more cautious, as a green light in the Tenderloin does not necessarily mean go. People wander out into the streets whenever they reach a corner whether or not the light is favorable, or to chat when the sidewalks get crowded. Cars tend to move very slowly. Admittedly some of them are looking to score. When I am driving through I move with the same slow caution, although I have no desire to purchase street drugs or sex. My caution is by no means universal—pedestrians are killed by drivers in this area frequently—but it is a different experience to drive and walk there than it is in other neighborhoods. Walking there is not necessarily better: the entire neighborhood reeks of waste, catcalls and propositions are inevitable, and the weight of human despair can be overwhelming. But the omnipresent threat of cars is somewhat lighter. Driving is fine as long as you’re not in a hurry. I have learned to accept this but people often freak out while driving through the Tenderloin, and these people usually want to leave in a hurry.
I do not think about the Tenderloin when I think about safe streets. Like everyone else who does not default to car travel, I imagine a world where drivers were at least prosecuted for killing pedestrians or cyclists, although most cities in the United States apparently feel that this is too much to ask. When I am ambitious I imagine San Francisco with an overlay of Copenhagen. I still miss the experience of moving through Copenhagen, which felt both liberating and safe. It was in many ways the friendliest place we have ever been, and I don’t doubt that that was related to the bicycles; most of the city felt scaled to people. I like to imagine the city’s streets being quiet enough to hold a conversation with my son when we are walking through a crosswalk. San Francisco’s major streets are painfully noisy. I often imagine a night without the howl of car alarms or the blatting of motorcycle pipes. These are pleasant fantasies.
But in some ways, I realize that the Tenderloin represents a different approach to the same problem, an escalation of pedestrian demands for the right to safe streets. It is a terrifying thing to watch; in the inevitable cross-fire, a car might get dinged but the pedestrian is usually killed. Very few people would be willing to take the same risks unless they too had nothing to lose. I find my time in the Tenderloin increasingly fascinating because it reflects not only the needs of desperate people, but of the costs of transportation design that ignores actual residents entirely.