Monday, May 17, 2010

Pedestrian Advocacy Part 1: First Steps Along a Footpath

Since I've been working on a paper about pedestrian advocacy in the developing world recently (more on that later), pedestrian advocacy groups have been on my mind a lot lately. One thing that's always baffled me about pedestrian advocacy is how, despite the fact that virtually everyone walks at some point in the day (even if it's only from the couch to the fridge), it's hard to get pedestrians to think of themselves cohesive group the way bicyclists or runners or even transit riders do. Why don't pedestrians self-identify? This is one of the questions that inspired me to research pedestrian advocacy, and while my paper went in a different direction, along the way I learned some pretty interesting stuff about the history of pedestrian advocacy. Who knows, maybe it can provide some insight that will advance the cause of walkability. Even if it doesn't, I thought it was worth sharing...

Those of you who read my post about the history of sidewalks might recall that London was responsible for introducing the first sidwalk in the late 1700s, so it should come as no surprise that the UK was also the birthplace of pedestrian advocacy. Right about the same time that the new-fangled "sidewalk" was making walking easier within British cities, foot travel in more rural parts of the country was becoming more difficult. Historically citizens had been allowed access through private lands along designated public footpaths. But an 1815 Parliamentary act allowed magistrates to close those paths they considered “unnecessary.”

A number of advocacy groups were soon established in response to the new restrictions, including the Association for the Preservation on Ancient Footpaths and the Manchester Association for the Preservation of Ancient Footpaths. Formed in the mid-1820s, these were the first organizations to take up walking as their primary cause. The groups fought to ensure that public footpaths remained open, often through mass “trespasses” along footpaths on private lands. They also provided guides, maps, and other publications promoting walking throughout the rural UK. Though the earliest footpath preservation groups have since disbanded, their successors continue to operate today.

While Britain’s footpath preservation societies concerned themselves primarily with protecting public access, by the late 1800s the rise of new transportation modes such as bicycles, rail, and motor vehicles led to an increasing concern with pedestrian safety in developed countries. In 1894 the New York Times chided the city’s local streetcar companies for failing to install pedestrian safety devices on their vehicles, as other major US cities had,

“Nobody who has read the numerous accounts of accidents to pedestrians by being knocked down…by the electric and cable cars of this city and Brooklyn can fail to have wondered why the railroad companies have not made special efforts to equip their cars with some device or appliance which, if it did not prove an absolute safeguard against accidents of this character, would at least minimize the danger to the unsuspecting man or women who dares to venture forth upon the public highways.”

(Hmm. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn't it?) New York's walkers had similar complaints about bicyclists on public streets. “Swift and noiseless as the ‘snake in the grass’ the cyclist steals upon the unlucky pedestrian,” one angry citizen complained in 1896.

Despite the many challenges pedestrians faced in 19th century America faced, walkers didn't get riled up enough to start their own advocacy groups until they faced a truly ominous enemy. Next up, Part 2: The Automobile Arrives on the Scene.

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