The vulnerable pedestrian

I am an aggressive pedestrian. I’ll admit it. I’ll jaywalk, signal, and “You better stop before you hit me—that won’t look very good on your resumé” my way toward shaving five minutes off of a 20 minute commute. It’s the best thing in the world. Seeing a driver speed away from a light only to be forced to stop and twiddle their thumbs because I stepped into the road is an amazing feeling. It’s my own micro revolution.

You see, when you’re a pedestrian, drivers ooze smugness as they pass you by. “Yeah, that’s right. You wait on that curb, stomach churning in an agonizing pizza withdrawal while I speed through this light. You look so stupid standing there. I might even gun my engine just to gloat. This is my world you little (insert derogatory term).”

The only reason that pedestrians wait on that curb is because not waiting would open oneself up to the possibility of having a two-ton metal brick fly in your direction—a brick directed by someone who only stops for pedestrians in order to mitigate the risk of tedious paperwork and of losing social esteem by becoming “that asshole who ran someone over.”

Maybe that is why I signal the drivers who are kind enough to stop for me at an unmarked crosswalk right on through. I figure that they have the presence of mind to realize their own position of power and relinquish some semblance of it to me, so I’ll give them a break. The drivers always look surprised when I wave them through, as though I needed their cooperation in order to achieve my goal of crossing the street. Then, having received my merciful pardon, they drive off. The motorist immediately following them is made to wait behind the wheel of their killing machine while I traipse across the street.

Vulnerability is what the walker has in comparison to the driver. While the driver may have the weapon, they do not have the permission to use it to hurt others, yet people still get hurt by them. According to a document released by the city of Portland, from 2008 to 2010 an average of 660 pedestrians were injured and 51 killed in motor vehicle crashes. To arbitrarily fill that statistic with slightly more emotional energy, many of those killed in such accidents are children and the elderly: Bright Billy with all that potential, racist Grandma Gladys with her overly-abundant “glaucoma medicine,” Small Suzy who aspired to become an artist and racist Grandpa Tom (just admit it. If you have grandparents they’re totally racist) with his pimped-out walker.

The people who suffer the most from a driver’s negligent use of power are those who are unaware of or incapable of shouldering the responsibility that comes with vulnerability. You know the responsibilities I am talking about: stopping at the curb to wait for cars to pass, wearing brightly colored clothing or flashing lights at night, watching out for blind corner crossings, listening attentively for car noises (good luck hearing hybrids/EVs, and looking left and right. The main thing to remember is that safeguards such as sidewalks, crosswalks (marked or unmarked), stop lights, stop signs, medians and low speed limits will not protect you from someone in a car who is abusing their privilege.

That is not to say that pedestrians are powerless. Just because the laws demand that pedestrians must yield to cars (the reason we have roads) doesn’t necessarily mean that pedestrians will yield. Some pedestrians understand their power over the driver.

The real strength in being vulnerable is that it makes those who take advantage of that vulnerability actually appear as the predators they are. Hence, it is in the driver’s interest to humor the pedestrian in order to maintain social esteem and keep the subjugated from vindictive retaliation. Pedestrians may take the risk and cross the street, safe with the knowledge that the driver will protect his own self-interest instead of running them over.

The fact that crossing the street has such an apparent power dynamic begs us to examine the power dynamics of our less superficial interactions. Our relationships are inescapably about power; are we accumulating it or giving it away equitably? Are we using our power to protect the vulnerable or merely accumulating it in order to earn (justly or unjustly) the esteem of those around us and egoistic satisfaction? Are we actively oppressing them or are we waiting patiently for them to cross the street?

It is the responsibility of the privileged to listen and serve the vulnerable. Through this responsibility, the privileged may have the satisfaction of knowing that what they did was right and still accumulate those coveted ego points.
It is the responsibility of the vulnerable to respond to the plight of others in the same or worse situations by communicating and coordinating with those of privilege.

Orwell stated the allure of power most magnificently in 1984: “Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation.” There is no little satisfaction in exerting your power over another. For even the brief moment it takes a motorist to breeze past a pedestrian waiting on the curb, the small thrill of getting your way while someone else waits helplessly gives a certain empty satisfaction.

Eventually, the driver must exit the vehicle, walk among the weak and become a picture of the perfect pedestrian, allowing themselves to wait indefinitely for all the cars to pass. Until the driver gets fed up and puts out a hand to say, “I need to cross,” they will not understand the struggle of the lesser.
This is not about crossing the street.