“Pedestrian is one of those words that conceals what’s it’s talking about.”


I can recall Jeff Gillenwater and I having this conversation perhaps ten years ago, and my subsequent resolution to stop using the word “pedestrian” in favor of calling walkers exactly what they are — walkers.

It’s a variation of the inanity in which we refer to cars hitting pedestrians, not drivers hitting walkers, or two airplanes having a “near miss” when in fact, it was a “near hit.”

Language matters, and seeing as one out of a hundred planners, politicians, campaign donors and automobile supremacists actually read (they’re too busy driving, aren’t they?), the extent of the conceptual difficulty becomes clear.

Why I’m Not a Pedestrian, by Scott Ogilvie

There’s kind of an old idea here—the idea that streets are not just for transportation. The idea is that streets are public space.

This was once a perfectly obvious idea. All kinds of life happened on the street that had little to do with transportation. The desire for a bustling street isn’t just nostalgia, because the truth is great cities, great places to visit, are always still great places to walk. There’s a shortage of great public spaces in this country, and it’s often been observed that we’ll travel to visit somewhere that is a great place to walk, but we don’t always understand how to build those places where we already live.

A thousand years ago, the whole world was your sidewalk. But since the introduction of the car, the space we allow people to walk has narrowed, and narrowed, and narrowed. Walking used to be natural, and essential everywhere—but we invented new rules and customs that moved people out of the way so cars could move faster. We’ve put walking in a smaller and smaller box. We call it “alternative transportation” we “accommodate bikes and peds” In short, we put walking on the margins, rather than at the center of what we do.

Even the word pedestrian—which is a common word, one I use a lot, but am trying to use less. Where does that word come from? Before anyone used that word to describe someone walking, pedestrian meant dull, lacking wit and imagination, ordinary. No one used the word pedestrian to mean a person traveling until the emergence of a related word, equestrian. To go by horse. And then along came the word pedestrian, to go by foot, as its counterpart. But who went by horse in cities? The wealthy and powerful went by horse, while the rest of us, the pedestrians, went by foot. The equestrian was pulled by an expensive four-legged vehicle that needed to be fueled and stored and maintained, while the pedestrian made due with their feet. Sounds a little familiar doesn’t it?

So perhaps we should retire the word pedestrian if we want to elevate our ideas about walking. Pedestrian is one of those words that conceals what’s it’s talking about. No one of us ever says, “Look at those small pedestrians trick or treating.” Of course we use normal words like children, walk the dog, walk to the park, and so on. Yet in transportation-speak, you walk out your door, and you’ve suddenly been transformed into a pedestrian …