Motorist blocks the crosswalk on France Avenue

Walk-Shaming in the Media

Media outlets frequently shame walking in the way they cover issues related to walking, and these tactics contribute to a culture where death and destruction are accepted as unavoidable byproducts of our auto-oriented mobility norms. I noticed this in the reporting on a bus-pedestrian collision last week in my neighborhood, which critically injured a well-liked long-time city councilwoman.

While news reports make it clear that the driver of the school bus failed to yield right of way to a pedestrian in a legal unmarked crosswalk before turning into her, the articles drop subtle hints that this was probably unavoidable for the professional driver of a giant vehicle on our public streets but probably avoidable for the seemingly law-abiding human being on two feet.

I doubt most people in the media intend to be so callous in how they frame walking issues (with the exception, perhaps, of this commentator) but we still need to be aware of the subtle ways language and rhetoric frame responsibility, accountability, normalized behavior, and mainstream mobility choices. Let’s examine some of these subtle and not-so-subtle methods of walk-shaming.

The crosswalk talk

every-corner-is-crosswalk-328x500The most common form of walk-shaming is to victim-blame, usually regarding use of a crosswalk (For a full background on this shaming, check out the comments on my earlier post including this one). It is bad enough when a crash victim wasn’t in a legal crosswalk, even though basic ethics as well as MN Statute 169.21.3(d)(1) demand motorists exercise due care to avoid running over human beings wherever they may be. And that’s, of course, ignoring the fact that so-called jaywalking originated in a propaganda campaign by the motor industry in the 1920s.

But this type of shaming is especially egregious when someone is killed or injured while crossing in a legal crosswalk. In last week’s bus-pedestrian collision, WCCO-TV was most blunt with this type of shaming, saying only, “The intersection does not have a marked crosswalk.” While factually correct, the strong implication is made that the collision occurred somewhere without a crosswalk, or somewhere with a “less-than” crosswalk. But state statute is clear that every corner is a crosswalk, and unmarked crosswalks are just as legal (and real) as marked crosswalks. Let’s not imply that crossing in an unmarked crosswalk is somehow a problem.

The persistent A-word

crash-not-accidentUsing “accident” as a default word to describe a crash continues to persist, especially in cases where a pedestrian is impacted by the collision. This serves to entrench the fatalistic concept that, in the absence of intent, carnage is merely an occurrence of chance.

Earlier this year (as the fruit of Twitter trolling on my behalf) Star Tribune amended their style book regarding usage of accident: “While we shouldn’t strain to avoid the word, use a more precise construction if it’s available.” Despite that, reporter Steve Brandt used the A-word and then, when called out over Twitter, replied “Will consider [changing the word] only if police determine that it was deliberate.”  We may not know if a collision is deliberate, but Brandt’s walk-shaming apparently was.

The profit from walk-shaming advertisements

General Motors Ad
Media outlets routinely broadcast walk-shaming advertising. Car commercials often strengthen the dangerous idea that a car is a physical extension of one’s body, showing people driving cars aggressively through deserted urban streets or playing to the idea that a bigger vehicle makes a person more powerful.

But even the Minnesota Department of Public Safety is a frequent walk-shamer, responsible for advertisements which tell Minnesotans that bicycling or taking the bus is punishment for losing one’s car if they drink and drive. I’ve heard these advertisements multiple times on rural Minnesota radio stations, and the implication is repulsive – thankfully their current crop of advertising isn’t as judgmental about the motivations of people who choose not to drive.

The assumption that everyone drives

Nobody. Seriously.

Nobody. Seriously.

The media routinely describes things in terms of impact on automobility as if everyone drives where topics are framed from a windshield perspective – from weather events to downtown parades – as if the impact on driving is of utmost importance.

I assume most people in the news business are part of the driving majority, so they’re probably not aware of their own windshield perspective. They aren’t aware of how their own understanding of mobility – how they get to work, how they go around and gather the news, and how they frame issues – is so tied up with windshield mentality. This can lead to an us-versus-them framing with widely varying levels of subtlety. For an extreme example of the us-versus-them framing by the media, read John Williams’ screed below. People in the media need to get past the idea that “we” are all drivers and everyone else is an other who’s holding us back.

The no-holds-barred aggression

Last but not least, the most insidious type of walk-shaming in the media: Downright provocation and aggression.

While Joe Soucheray is the king of editorialized aggression in our media market, he’s not the only one. Here’s a direct quote from a radio show on WCCO-AM hosted by John Williams, transcribed right from the podcast.

I’ve got a solution for when the light turns green and you want to go forward in your car, but you want to make a right hand turn. but the pedestrians also have a green so they’re walking in the sidewalk. So they’re keeping you from making your turn, which is keeping the person behind you from going anywhere. I have a solution.

Instead of “we yield to the pedestrians,” the pedestrians yield to the cars. Right of way is the car’s. The cars, on green lights, go. And the little white walking man icon for the pedestrians would be more like a red running man. And it would be like, “You can go! But they’re not going to stop.”

Why isn’t that the solution? Why do we let pedestrians – who clearly don’t care, because they’re texting – why do we give them the right? Why do we give them the power?

We’ve got all these people in all these cars, and one or two people can screw it up for everybody.

When I hear that on the radio one week, then read about a neighbor being horribly injured by a school bus the next week, I’m convinced our media shares culpability in the Minnesota Massacre and the culture that does so little to stop it.

32 thoughts on “Walk-Shaming in the Media

  1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    Excellent post Matt. I think that some of this is either ignorance or obliviousness. John Williams’ is quite amazing though. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised though given how many radio commentators whine about bicycle riders and even advocate buzzing them or throwing things at them to get them off the roads.

    To Williams’ dilemma, moving the crossing a car length back from the corner eliminates the blocking the second car problem as well as puts pedestrians (and bicycle riders) within much better view of drivers and separates two conflicts in time so the driver can deal with making it safely through the intersection and then focus on the crossing.

    1. Wayne

      At that point they’re already accelerating out of their turn. It seems more dangerous given how little most drivers care about the safety of others.

      1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

        Exactly. Keep the crosswalks at the intersection for better visibility. Add bump-outs and remove the parking space closest to the intersection to day-light it. Waiting 5 sec to turn because someone is walking is not a problem, it is a feature.

    1. Mike SonnMike Sonn

      It is a threat because our built environment sucks. Why would you walk 45 min when you can drive in 5? Not to mention the horrible streetscapes and life-threatening infrastructure. And if we keep requiring liquor licenses to have parking minimums, no amount of public shaming is going to stop people from driving to the bar.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

      I think the point was that there’s a subconscious understanding of how crummy it is to be someone without a car in our state/region that it’s broadly understood not having your car would be a punishment. The fact that public officials were blind enough to put it into advertisements shows how pervasive it is, and how far they have to come to make things better for the people who never had a car to begin with and deal with it on a daily basis.

      Losing your privilege (not right) to drive should be a punishment, in that you’ve lost access to thousands spent on your preferred form of transportation (and the things you like to do with it like recreation, personal space/comfort during a commute, etc). It shouldn’t be a death sentence for access to jobs or put you more at risk to be injured or killed by using other modes in the meantime.

  2. Greg

    In a lame move, the governemnt (city, county?) in all their pedestrian bashing wisdom recently removed a brand new marked crosswalk on Nicollet at 37th. Not just paint, it was one of those etched-in permanent crosswalks in the midst of the Lyndale/Kingfield Eat Street boom area. Highly walkable, lots of pedestrians, but for some car-centric rationale they determined this crosswalk was marked in “error”. All the expense to put it in, all the expense to remove it.

    Why not just leave it????

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      Yes! I noticed these. It looked like an error when they put them, but I was surprised they spent more money (and presumably wasted the materials) to take them out. It must have been a contractor for the City, as Nicollet is only a county road south of 61st.

      I think they should have just followed up with signs, as pavement markings alone are not very visible, especially during the winter.

      I suspect it’s the usual rationale: unmarked crosswalks encourage more vigilance on the part of pedestrians.

    2. Gabe

      I was wondering about that, too, and meant to look into it after noticing that they did the same thing on Nicollet closer to MLK park – 39th I think.

  3. Lindsey WallaceLindsey Wallace

    Thanks for this really concise description of so many problems. I really don’t understand it. Why is it such a big deal for a person in a car to wait? Seriously, that’s what it comes down to. Everyone in cars wants to go fast and never stop. What would it take to get people to take a deep breath, slow down, and be patient?

    1. Wayne

      Because they’re so used to getting everywhere so much faster and never actually budget enough time. Everyone who drives seems to take the best-case scenario for how long it takes to get somewhere and whenever there’s the slightest delay or inconvenience they drive recklessly to ‘make up the time.’ When it only takes you ten minutes to drive halfway across town, ten seconds waiting for a pedestrian apparently seems like an eternity to them. And if there’s also traffic thrown into the mix and they’ve had to wait a few times before they get to you? Watch out!

      But yeah, in the winter when it’s like -20 and I’m trying to walk across the street and someone in a heated car gets impatient or cuts me off in the crosswalk I want to pull them out into the cold and watch them freeze.

      1. Rachel Q

        I think this speaks to an ingrained cultural issue too. In America, everything has to happen NOW. Our lives are built around material things and instant gratification. Cars fulfill both of those desires.

        I have had this thought many times as a pedestrian crossing the street: Why did you (the car driver) need to speed in front of me to make that righthand turn and endanger my life as well as slow down my day, by making me wait for you? Why do pedestrians always have to be the ones to wait, in spite of the fact that we are moving at a slower pace and will already take longer to get to our destination?

        This article is excellently written.

        1. Rosa

          The thing is, cars promise to fulfill those desires, but they don’t really. In real life, it’s never an open flat blacktop in a beautiful landscape with nothing in the way (well, sometimes it is, but then you have to get all the way across Colorado or eastern Oregon). It’s usually a road with a bunch of other cars in the way of where you want to go.

    2. Rosa

      it’s the myth that’s used to sell cars. I still fall for it over and over – every single time I think, oh, i’m late, i’m tired, it’s hot, I should just drive, and then driving is slow and frustrating and infuriating. Or when I was pregnant and couldn’t bike or bus because of the constant puking, I kept thinking the terribleness of car commuting (as a passenger, even) was because our car was old, not because it was a car. Like a newer car with better features would make it awesome.

      Cars are for going fast. Everything that slows them down is not a totally expected and foreseeable feature of driving (like the presence of other cars in the road, or construction delays, or having to wait while someone crosses the road), it is a violation of expectations of how driving should be.

  4. Dana DeMasterDanaD

    I appreciate how you frame local media in terms of the constant focus on drivability. Not that I want Kare11 or KSTP to speak to me, but on the rare occaison that I see the local television news I am slightly offended how it normalizes the suburban lifestyle. It is really only speaking to that group.

    I have appreciated Sesame Street as one of the few children’s programs that more accurately reflects the world my children are growing up in – urban setting, people sitting on stoops, walking and biking (you rarely see cars on Sesame Street), diverse skin and hair. That is much more of their experience than a two car garage, traffic reports, and a minivan.

  5. David MarkleDavid Markle

    Having grown up in a small town where everyone walked –even my mother walked the 3/4 mile to school (and back) where she taught every day–I guess I experienced a mini-urban environment. At that time the town had less than 2,000 inhabitants, but there were four hardware stores, three barber shops, a movie theater, four restaurants, two clothing stores, a newspaper, a K-12 school, etc. etc. The farm families from a five to fifteen mile radius (depending on from which point of the compass) did drive to town on Saturday evening. Shopping malls did not exist; WalMart and its competitors had not yet destroyed the mini-urbanism of such small towns (nor the urban character of such regional centers as Mankato). There was no Sesame Street; in fact my parents were hold-outs against TV and (thank God) I never developed the stunted vicarious life of boob-tube consciousness.

    But contrast that environment to tiny towns in the Dakotas where there’s no place to go on foot. To this day in the evenings a few teenagers may amuse themselves by endlessly driving a circuit around those lonely blocks. Or to the town in Wyoming where I overheard parents talking about the upcoming routine high school athletic game; the kids would travel more than 250 miles just to get to the high school competitors’ playfield.

  6. Rachel Q

    The “assumption that everyone drives” is an especially important one to highlight. Whenever I’m making plans to attend an event with a friend, or scheduling a medical appointment, for example, there is always this point in the conversation where the person giving directions breaks into a lengthy explanation about where and how to park. And I always just cut them off and say “I will be taking the bus.” It seems to baffle people that life would be possible without a car, and that, coupled with all the other topics you covered, makes for this dangerous climate.

    Thanks for writing this piece!

  7. Irvin Dawd

    Great piece, Matt. Spotted it on Planetizen:

    Appreciated your sub-heading: The use of the word “accident,” which, according to Steele, “serves to entrench the fatalistic concept that, in the absence of intent, carnage is merely an occurrence of chance.”

    Two of my “motorist” friends just don’t get it, and I don’t think they ever will. Like the writer you mention on Twitter, they see accident as the opposite of deliberate. One doesn’t see why it makes a difference. It’s frustrating conveying to them why words are important, so it’s always good to read a thoughtful column discussing this topic.

    1. Ted Hathaway

      More Americans have died on our streets and roadways since 1980 than in all of our wars combined. Our blithe acceptance of this can only be explained by Steele’s point, that it’s just an unavoidable happenstance, “the price of doing business”, as it were.

  8. CycleOne

    As a non-motorized commuter in Houston, I also recognized that the morning television media outlets reinforce Walk Shaming with “Traffic reports” about every 5 minutes which promote driving to work as fast as possible.

  9. Eli Damon

    Excellent points. All of these behaviors infuriate me as well. I would like to point out another one. It is not related to walking, but it is related to what you call the “windshield mentality”. Language that reinforces the notion that all driving is done in motor vehicles. For example, using “vehicle” to mean “motor vehicle”, “drive” to mean “drive a motor vehicle”, “driver” to mean “motorist”, or “traffic” (which includes drivers of all kinds as well as pedestrians) to mean “motor vehicle traffic”.

  10. Dave

    I’m shopping for a police nightstick–I may never use it to take out the headlight of some schlong’s Audi, but it’ll feel good to swing as I walk.

  11. Kate A

    This is a fact. All of us, even those of us that drive a lot,which includes me, walk where we have to cross a street. We play ‘pedestrian’ too. It is scary for both the driver and the pedestrian to watch for clues as to what the other plans to do at a crosswalk whereby the driver plans to turn right and the pedestrian may also want to cross. Rather than risk injuring the person that has ‘no shield’ it is best to take a breather and not hurry the turn. The cost: a little time versus a life and the driver’s life of regret. We must all remember that a car is a WEAPON. A speedy weapon. Those without a ‘shield’ should come first.

  12. Jon hay

    We had someone killed and the accident occurred when the driver went left of Center but it was the pedestrian fault for not crossing In the crosswalk. We wouldn’t accept this for workplace injury, maybe we just want to criminalize being poor.

  13. Michael Z. Williamson

    While I agree with many of your points, the laws of physics trump everything else.

    I’ve seen pedestrians step out into traffic, demanding right of way, from vehicles that cannot possibly stop in time, then make rude gestures at drivers.

    What we need is more sidewalks, especially in suburbs, and, if you look in Europe, they often have pedestrian bridges over major roads outside of downtown.

    Where I live it’s just not safe for the kids to walk home from school. The sidewalks are inconsistent and there’s barely stop signs, much less lights.

  14. Adam MillerAdam Miller

    There is simply no way that you’ve seen excessively aggressive pedestrians anywhere near as frequently as you’ve seen drivers fail to yield when they are supposed to. The magnitude of the frequency of two things are so overwhelming different that you probably don’t even notice the latter happening all. the. time.

    As to your last paragraph, that’s a tragic failure in the design of our transportation system.

  15. OA

    Take just 5 minutes to observe the traffic pattern at the intersection of Larimer and Speer Blvd. This cycles hundreds of time each day – the pattern, by design – gives walkers just enough time to get to the middle of the southbound lanes of Speer before flashing “don’t walk” signals and giving vehicles a green light. Drivers display their annoyance at the scofflaw pedestrians by approaching and accelerating away aggressively. There a close calls there every day.

Comments are closed.