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The linguistic origins of the term jaywalker

Jaywalker is a popular pejorative that also enjoys a legal definition. Most of us have heard the term, but we are unaware of its history or even what “jay” means.

The blog Grammarphobia has an article ‘on jays and jaywalkers’ which answers the questions you may have never thought to ask.

The word “jay” in this context does not refer to the bird, but rather an old-timey slang word for “a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow.” Anyone stupid enough to walk on the wrong side of the road was ridiculed as a jay.

Interestingly, the term “jaydriver” appeared around the same time as “jaywalker.” Drivers would also find themselves confused as to which side of the road they should use in those early days of auto transportation.

The Grammarphobia article notes this observation:

Merriam-Webster adds that it’s “unclear why jaywalker shifted its meaning and survived for more than a hundred years now, while jay-driver languishes in obscurity.”

I assume that “jaywalker” would have languished in the past as well had it not become enshrined in law books. Either way, we still hold contempt for people who dangerously walk across the street, but consider dangerous driving to be just a mistake anyone could make.

When our streets are dangerous by design, then often the only feasible option is to “jaywalk.” This reality is now fueling the movement to decriminalize crossing the street.

National Week Without Driving 2023 is October 2-8

National Week Without Driving is an annual challenge by Disability Rights Washington (DRW). For 2023, they’re taking it national for the first time. It runs through October 2-8.

You can get information about how to participate from Disability Rights Washington’s website, as well as America Walks.

If you can drive or afford a car, you may not understand what it’s like to rely on walking, rolling, transit and asking for rides. But for nearly a third of people living in the United States – people with disabilities, young people, seniors and people who can’t afford cars or gas – this is our every day.  We created the Week Without Driving challenge so that policy makers, elected leaders and transportation professionals can begin to understand the barriers nondrivers experience in accessing our communities.

As an individual, you can participate by not driving yourself by car for the week and taking note of how it affects your daily life. If someone drives you or you use a taxi, consider the monetary and personal cost, and think about how that would be sustainable.

DRW notes that, although this challenge is organized with the purpose of promoting disability rights, it is not a disability simulation or a contest to see who has the best driving alternatives. The point is to make yourself aware of the choices that a non-driver must cope with in your community.

And they don’t say this explicitly, but I presume that simply bike commuting would not be in the spirit of the challenge either, for those of us who do that regularly already.

A scan of the original 1935 article.
Image credit: Reader's Digest.

This 1935 Reader's Digest piece about traffic deaths remains relevant

I recently found an article from a 1935 Reader’s Digest which tries to raise awareness of deadly driving. Sadly, a lot of it still rings true today.

You can read the republished text here: “A Writer’s Desperate Plea Paints a Horrifying Picture of What Really Happens in a Car Crash”.

It’s worth reading in its entirety, but I especially appreciated this paragraph about the lives lost on our roads:

If ghosts could be put to a useful purpose, every bad stretch of road in the United States would greet the oncoming motorist with groans and screams and the educational spectacle of ten or a dozen corpses, all sizes, sexes, and ages, lying horribly still on the bloody grass.

Today, we no longer need to qualify that with only “bad” stretches of road. Every main street or thoroughfare, especially our “good” ones, can be found littered with crosses and other memorials for its victims.

Despite our many efforts to make cars safer over the past 90 years, the death toll keeps rising and our society has normalized these deaths more than ever.

Driving is far more expensive than most realize, and the government funds most of it

Harvard students have calculated the price of keeping cars running in Massachusetts: about $64.1 billion dollars annually, and more than half is paid by public funds. Per household, $14K is spent by the government and $12K is spent on personal car expenses every year.

You can read Harvard’s report about it here.

We tend to associate car transportation with individualism and low public cost. People assume that the price of other transportation options is why they can’t compete with cars. But this only holds if transportation is a real market, and if our enormous car infrastructure exists for free.

Once you factor in the massive amount of land that the government must consume (usually acquired from individuals) to fit ever-widening roads, the “free” parking lots that the government either provides or forces private businesses to provide, the nonstop construction and maintenance, the traffic policing, and the fact that every driver is only permitted on the road with a government license, then the costs quickly add up. This doesn’t even include the stress that our car infrastructure causes on public health, climate, or social fabric. Once you erase those from the equation, then cars seem cheap indeed.

But the real budget shows why we let cars dominate our communities: their massive government investment. If the government pays you $14K to drive and you only have to pay $12K personally, then it seems like you’re getting a great deal. If you choose to walk or bike, then you’re missing out that $14K of benefits. Sure, we can’t see the price tags directly, but we still love the “free” parking lots, widened lanes, law enforcement, and all of the other things we take for granted when we drive around. Without any of those seemingly-free services, a lot more people would be walking.

The Harvard study only looked at Massachusetts, but its authors hope that people can recreate it in other states as well.

In an era where every public agency has its budget scrutinized, our transportation system has so far evaded mainstream criticism. We need to better publicize the real monetary costs it imposes on the public, and we need more leaders willing to challenge it.

Research shows that walkable neighborhoods help adults socialize and foster community

In another case where science proves what common sense tells us, people who live in walkable neighborhoods are less lonely, less isolated, and have stronger communities. This has implications for not only our mental and social wellness, but also our physical health.

The University of California San Diego has the details here.

They highlight how this links walkability to our larger public health policies:

Loneliness and isolation can lead to: 29% increased risk of heart disease; 32% increased risk of stroke; 50% increased risk of developing dementia among older adults; and 60% increased risk of premature death.

And they quote James F. Sallis, Ph.D., one of the study’s authors:

“Transportation and land use policies across the U.S. have strongly prioritized car travel and suburban development, so millions of Americans live in neighborhoods where they must drive everywhere, usually alone, and have little or no chance to interact with their neighbors.”

This should come as no surprise to many of us, to whom the benefits of walkable neighborhoods seem obvious. But it’s always helpful to have scientific data with precise numbers to back us up.

WRBL reports on Columbus GA's bike-friendly community status

In 2023, Columbus was renewed as a bronze-level Bicycle Friendly Community (BFC) by The League of American Bicyclists. Local media station WRBL picked up the story this week.

You can read the WRBL report here.

The article has quotes from Bicycle Columbus and Piedmont Columbus Regional Healthcare. They discuss why the BCF award is important as well as the improvements we need to continue working on. I think they all did a great job at covering the topic.

Read our previous post about the 2023 BFC awards here.

A photo of a path.
The Fall Line Trace in Columbus, Georgia.

Multi-use paths aren't exactly stroads, but they can seem like it

I recently saw a blog post that asks the provocative question: “Are Multi-Use Paths the ‘Stroads’ of Active Transportation Infrastructure?” As a longtime believer in multi-use paths, I can’t help but chime-in with my take.

What is a “stroad?”

A “stroad” describes a particular ubiquitous trend in car-centric infrastructure. It’s a combination of a “street” and a “road,” but fits the role of neither well and inherits the worst of both. A street is a place for people to interact with businesses, residences, and other people. A road is a high-speed route for getting people from one place to another. Stroads are those five-plus lanes of traffic that run along parking lots and entrances to suburbs. In the words of Strong Towns: “They are enormously expensive to build and, ultimately, financially unproductive. They’re also very dangerous.

To the urbanist crowd, stroads are one of the cardinal sins of bad infrastructure. Could the humble path, used for biking and walking, possibly be comparable? The blog post’s author, Emma, identifies several stroady qualities they have.

The case against multi-use paths.

She observes that paths usually clash with “places.” To quote the blog post:

MUPs often try to serve both people enjoying a place (like with streets) and people trying to get somewhere else (like with roads). If the path gets crowded, has poor visibility around corners, and people moving at significantly different speeds, then it fails as both a recreational amenity and a transportation route.

A “place” is somewhere that’s human scale, walkable, pleasant, and productive. Paths often connect with places, but themselves are usually nondescript corridors through wooded areas or alongside major roads (or rather, stroads). They’re for speedy bicycles or joggers, not for people to conduct their business or social life. When paths intersect with places, it’s akin to when a stroad merges into your downtown main street. The path users create traffic and other unpleasantness for the people there trying to enjoy themselves.

Another issue she brings up is that paths often constitute the only feasible route that connects places for cyclists or joggers. This parallels the stroad-style development of building one big road as the primary access to strip malls and neighborhoods. It gives one piece of infrastructure a monopoly, and anywhere that doesn’t connect to it becomes even more isolated. When traffic backs up, there’s nowhere to release the pressure. Compare this to a traditional grid of streets where traffic can distribute across the community. Similarly, a single monolithic path will limit its users’ mobility as much as it enables it.

In paths’ defense.

So, are multi-use paths as bad as stroads? I don’t think so, but the exact answer isn’t straightforward. I’ll use my own city, Columbus Georgia, as an example.

I believe paths are one of Columbus’ big success stories when it comes to mobility. You don’t have to take my word for it either. When we renewed our Bicycle Friendly Community award, our feedback praised how expansive our paths are. I personally use them all the time for commuting and recreation, and I always see diverse groups of people using them for the same things. I’m quite proud of our paths, so it feels like an insult to compare them to the dreaded stroads.

But maybe the comparison shouldn’t be so surprising. Columbus’ transportation is characterized by stroads everywhere. The minds that planned and constructed our paths needed to fit them into the developments that surrounded them.

Columbus’ original path, the Fall Line Trace, was envisioned to be like a park. Users were expected drive their cars to one of its parking lots and ride their bicycles from there. Our city’s leaders saw the tension between bicycles and cars sharing the roads, so their solution was to get the bicycles off the roads and onto the path. It was designed for recreation, and connectivity was never a part of the plan. In fact, the city even disallowed businesses adjacent to the Fall Line Trace to build connections to it. This was definitely born from the same top-down, one-size-fits-all mindset that produces stroads.

But, even if the original plan was short-sighted, the path has been a huge success in spite of that. Many people, myself included, use it for commuting or other ways that I’m sure its original creators did not intend. It’s been a major factor for revitalizing our community’s interest in bicycling. Our newer path developments, the Dragonfly Trails, now build upon its original design with a more holistic vision. They extend it by connecting different districts, neighborhoods, and businesses. Our path may not be perfect, but it’s an investment that continues to pay dividends.

The solution is more transportation options.

I agree with Emma’s conclusion, though. She says, “the problem is not that this MUP exists, it’s that it exists as the ONLY option.” Our paths’ alleged faults aren’t necessarily due to those paths themselves, they’re just getting blamed for the deficiencies in the rest of the transportation system.

If so many people need to use a path that it clashes with the people who want to use the places around the path, then the real problem is that we just don’t have enough active transportation options. Recall the traditional street grid where cars, pedestrians, and bicycles can evenly spread across different routes. The stroad-style mentality of trying to fit everything into a single one-size-fits-all piece of infrastructure, built for a single mode of transportation, is fragile and incompatible with how humans actually use places.

I’m not sure if paths are the future of transportation, but I believe they can lead us there. The fact that my town’s original path is such a success beyond its original purpose is evidence of that. At the very least, paths may be a kind of “Nicorette” that can help wean us off car-centric transportation so that more diverse and equitable options may flourish. Either way, the solution isn’t fewer paths, it’s more active transportation routes, everywhere.

What is human scale?

I often use the term “human scale” and assume that its meaning is obvious to everyone. Here is a quick explanation of it, specifically for how it relates to biking and walking.

When your community is at human scale, things are proportional to the human body. Signs are readable when you stand near them, and there are minute details in the art and architecture. You can walk from one front door to the next as you would walk through a hallway. Navigating across the community is intuitive and accessible. And, perhaps most notably, it’s easy to interact with other humans without needing extra technology.

Those of us living in North America probably associate human scale with our historic downtowns, college campuses, and tourist destinations. At home, we’re much more familiar with automotive scale.

In automotive scale, signs are enormous and distant so as to be visible to speeding cars. Art and architecture is plainer, usually minimalistic, because drivers wouldn’t see small details anyway. Front doors are spread apart to accommodate wide parking lots and lanes of car traffic. Navigation is often only feasible with a map or a GPS. The rare human you see will look miserably out of place.

To walk as a human within an automotive-scale community can feel disorienting, uncomfortable, and even degrading. Where are you? There’s no sense of place. Everything looks the same: vast deserts of asphalt and concrete walls barren of detail. Noisy cars zoom past you. You have to constantly stay alert and constantly look both ways before stepping anywhere. Visiting a store that’s “just” across the street feels like an epic journey. Venturing any further is like getting lost a labyrinth.

I think that the idea of human scale elegantly summarizes what makes walkable communities pleasant and productive. There’s science describing what “human scale” is exactly, but we as humans intuitively know it when we see it. It’s the scale that we naturally use when we build things ourselves. It’s the scale at which everything was built before corporations with bulldozers built things for us.

Understanding the distinction between human and automotive scales is one key to understanding why so many efforts to build infrastructure for walking and biking fail. You can’t just drop a sidewalk or a bike lane into an automotive-scale area and expect people to use it. Things that seem dense when you look at them from a car or a birds-eye-view can seem spread apart when you approach them on foot. You need to downsize the overall scale of the buildings and streets to fit the human body.

Like most great ideas, human scale is not a panacea. We shouldn’t assume that all people are the same size and share the same abilities. A child walking to school will have different needs than an adult walking to work. It’s not as simple as checking a box to upgrade your town.

But compared to our status quo of using automotive scale as a one-size-fits-all for everything, building more human-scale communities is an excellent goal, no matter how you define it.

NPR reports on our 40-year high in pedestrian deaths

A few months ago, we saw that pedestrian fatalities in the U.S. have reached a 40-year high. Now the news is hitting mainstream outlets like NPR, who also have some ideas to fix it.

You can read NPR’s report here.

Their analysis of the issue is overall pretty good this time. They interview experts who cite fundamental issues with our car-centric infrastructure, and they also list realistic ways we can improve the problem immediately, such as traffic-calming measures that lower speed limits. This is a welcome improvement from the last time NPR reported on rising traffic deaths, where they entirely blamed it on poor policing.

I noticed one odd detail, though. While discussing how the Sun-Belt states have the highest rate of deaths, they list several theories why, including some seemingly-superficial ones like “Southern states have better weather and people spend more time outside.” They don’t mention one obvious pattern, which I said last time I wrote about this: “Those are the regions that saw most of their growth happen after the 1960s, when the government aggressively poured money into high-speed highways and sprawling suburban developments. That transportation design is highly dangerous, and it now dominates the Sun Belt”.

But if there really is a connection between better weather and higher pedestrian activity, and therefore higher pedestrian deaths, then that’s all the more reason why we need to invest in safer infrastructure.

The historic Black churches bike ride promotional banner.

The Juneteenth historic Black churches ride in Columbus

We celebrated Juneteenth this year with a bike ride to historic Black churches and other local Black history sites in Columbus, Georgia. I think this was one of our most unique and impressive bicycle events to date.

Thunderclouds loomed over us just before it was time to begin, and we almost postponed the event in hopes of drawing a bigger crowd on a sunnier day. But the couple-dozen people who showed up voted to continue on anyway. They made the right decision, because everyone had a great time.

A gospel choir at Metropolitan Baptist Church.

A gospel choir awaited us at our first stop, Metropolitan Baptist, which was an amazing way to begin the event. By the time they finished their songs, everyone was energized and excited to see what was next. Each of the other churches, Saint James A.M.E. and First African Baptist, had an interpreter to guide us through and explain its history. They didn’t just discuss the history of the building, but also of its people and what the church had contributed to the community over the past two centuries. One guide was a third-generation member of the church, and she recounted stories that she had heard from her grandmother. Our other historic stops were the Ma Rainey house and the Old Slave Cemetery. The ride concluded at Moe’s Barbecue restaurant for dinner and more music.

The route was as short and easy as it could get, only about four miles. This was good for our diverse crowd, which included lycra-clad cyclists along with families hauling children in cargo bikes. No one had a chance to get tired or fall behind because we had a new stop every couple of blocks. We took our time to enjoy each each site, so, despite the short milage, the whole event lasted about three hours.

Traveling by bicycle was a major enhancement for an educational event like this. We got to see not just the churches, but the streets and homes around them up-close and personally. We all felt more engaged than we would if we had rode in a car or bus. It was easier to sense how interconnected the community was, and still is, rather than as just bubbles of parking lots.

A photo of bicycles in front of First African Baptist church.

We also got some local media attention from WTVM, who followed us around (by car) and recorded the event. You can watch WTVM’s coverage here.

I hope we can do more cultural events like this in the future. Everyone had a great time, and our hosts at the churches were thrilled to have us. Anyone can get a long group ride together, but how often does your bike ride include a gospel choir?

NHTSA wants to make cars safer for pedestrians

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has proposed that cars add automatic emergency braking for pedestrians and to provide consumers information for how dangerous cars are for pedestrians in a crash.

As cars have gotten safer for the people inside them, they have grown more dangerous for everyone outside. A decade of empirical data on traffic deaths can attest to that. So any effort now to reign in deadly car design in is well overdue.

Advocacy organization America Walks has a few concerns about the consumer information proposal, though. Even if it’s well-intentioned, it may risk being ineffective:

Under the current proposal, a vehicle could receive a failing grade for pedestrian crashworthiness, but still earn a five-star safety rating. This is unacceptable and misrepresents a vehicle as safe when it is not. In addition, the proposal fails to evaluate limited driver visibility, a known safety flaw for larger vehicles, and won’t display pedestrian crashworthiness ratings at the point of sale, where most consumers would see them.

As an aside, a year ago I purchased a new car with all of the modern bells and whistles. For example, it will flash a bright red light at the driver’s face if it detects that you’re approaching another car too quickly and need to brake. It also can detect pedestrians in front of it, but how does it communicate that to the driver? By displaying a tiny “person walking” symbol on the dashboard, next to the check-engine light and all of the other little icons that people ignore. If I somehow didn’t see an actual person in front of me, I can’t imagine how I would notice that icon instead.

If your favorite buildings had to meet parking requirements

I saw this hypothetical recently: what if the Empire State Building met today’s parking requirements? The answer is that we would have to demolish 56 acres, or 15 city blocks, around it. Now, what if we applied this to the most loved buildings in your town?

A depiction of how many blocks would need to be demolished for a parking lot around the Empire State Buildings.

The above chart by Dhiru Thadani shows how much space a parking lot around the Empire State Building would require. You can read his whole explanation here.

I live far from New York City, in a town that mostly grew after parking requirements had already been mandated. But we still have our share of buildings fortunate to have been constructed before such regulations existed. These are now among the most distinctive and attractive buildings in our city.

These places survive partially thanks to their “historic” designation by the government. But they were not historic when our ancestors built them. They were just normal buildings.

Parking requirements now make it mostly illegal for us to repeat the success of our now-historic buildings. Why should you only have one small downtown full of nice places? Why not build more of your favorite buildings throughout your entire city? If the answer is parking requirements, then it’s time to look at fixing that.