Southern Pedestrians Beware

Sometimes a study comes out that tells you something you instinctively already know. That’s how I felt about a Wonkblog report from Emily Badger today that included a list of the cities that appeared to be most dangerous for pedestrians:

The majority of the metros on this list are in the South or Southwest. What they have in common, though, isn’t necessarily climate; it’s car-dependence. Nearly all of these cities have grown up in the age of the automobile, at a post-World War II time when we focused less on designing places for pedestrians because society had broadly acquired the luxury of driving instead.

That’s true, I’m sure. But having spent most of my life in the South before moving to California, I’m convinced there’s a cultural factor, too. Many southern drivers are actively hostile to pedestrians, who are viewed as losers, hippies or potential criminals–perhaps even as prey. When I was a teenager not old enough to drive, I had to regularly walk a couple of miles from my isolated suburban neighborhood in Smyrna, Georgia, to the cultural oasis of a town or shopping center. I can’t tell you how many beer cans and curses were hurled at me by passing motorists, or how many times cars sped up when they approached me in what passed for crosswalks. The motorized population was enraged by the very presence of the Walking Dude.

It’s taken me a while to adjust to Central California, where the pedestrian is king. Here cars slow down and even come to a complete stop to let me cross the street. At first I thought it was a trick to lure me into traffic and then mow me down. But no: it’s just a safe place for pedestrians. Some of it may have to do with signage, laws and infrastructure. For the most part, though, people here don’t seem to have been raised on the notion that pedestrians are cultural threats. And for that I am grateful.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.