One hot day last August I set out to walk a marathon around the Twin Cities, starting with a jaunt over to St Paul for a streets.mn board meeting, a tour of the sewer covers of Rondo (they’re amazing!), and a nice brunch before meandering back to Minneapolis to wander around more. Midday, I headed west on the north side of University. As I stepped up a curb ramp, a young man on a scooter shouted, swerved around me, lurched his shoulder into me and leaned to avoid the unforgiving brick-and-iron fence to our right.
I stepped sideways as he hit me, bristling with surprise and annoyance. He turned and shouted something at me as he kept going, half accusatorily, half an apology, and I shouted something back. And then he was gone.
Being a walking advocate and long-time Twitter-ranter, I spent the next mile reflecting on the experience. With the quick rise of scooters on the same streets I frequent, I’d expected a few encounters. I’d even had a near-miss two evenings before in front of the Walker Art Center–I was chatting on my phone walking along the usually-deserted sidewalk, suddenly stepping left for no reason I ever figured out beside the unpredictability of pedestrians even to ourselves. And there was a shouted “hey!” as I watched the young man who’d been about to pass me steer into the boulevard, catch his front wheel, and go flying over the handlebars onto his hands while his two friends caught up with us.
I hung up hurriedly, asking him repeatedly if he was ok, as he repeatedly apologized. His hands must’ve stung–my hands smarted in sympathy for the feel of momentum against hands on concrete–but he kept reassuring me he was fine. And then I mentioned I hadn’t tried a scooter yet, and asked how he liked it, and his eyes lit up as he told me it was the most joyful experience he’d ever had. Just like that, being nearly hit by a scooter on one of the most hostile streets in Minneapolis became the highlight of my already lovely night. My biggest fear was that these young men would feel that they couldn’t ride on the sidewalk and instead try to take the street, a far more dangerous proposition.
When I was hit, it struck me that there was no adrenaline rush in my body in response. As one who walks in Minneapolis and St Paul, I regularly feel the surge into fight/flight/freeze as drivers nearly kill me, and that sensation stays with me for hours. But this? The heavy and unexpected force of a man’s shoulder into my body as I walked slightly hunched? I felt surprised. I felt mildly annoyed.
But no adrenaline, no trauma. No sense that I almost died. No fear that turns into rage that turns into a screaming match or worse. None of that.
Instead, what I noticed in both encounters was that the scooter riders actively avoided hurting me. It wasn’t that they had some particular friendliness for me, but their bodies and my body were roughly equals. In the near-miss, the rider instinctively knew it was safer for him to risk a fall in rough terrain than to hit me. In the actual collision, that rider instinctively knew that it was safer to hit me than the brick wall, but managed to do so with a warning and without knocking me over.
When it comes to walking and biking and, apparently, scooters, the same part of our brain that protects us from injury protects others too. When we walk and use wheelchairs and bike and skateboard and use scooters and push strollers, our well-being is tied up in the well-being of those around us, in a visceral way that goes back as far as our self-propelled bipedal species.
And that’s my take-away. Sure, those using scooters and bikes and skateboards and wheelchairs and even those running or walking can cause injury to one another. I know I’ve been guilty of cutting in closer than I should’ve when passing on foot. But I also know that the more I move myself around the city, body to body with the world, the more I learn walking and movement, including an awareness of others. I walk in response to those around me, I bike in response to those around me, and if I were on a scooter, it’d be as part of that same community.
Being outside a car, in varying proximity to one another, is the basic human state. We learn to navigate it when still and in motion, in different contexts starting as soon as we move of our own volition whether on foot or using a walker or a wheelchair. Even before we’re learning queue nicely or play basketball or soccer or ride a bike, we’re successfully negotiating shared spaces with minimal injury.
Scooters increase the speeds at which this happens for some of us, just as bikes do. But unlike cars, scooters don’t remove us from the public space we’re sharing. There’s no steel or glass or airbags protecting scooter riders the consequences of a crash or the voices of people around them. We’re as equal here as we are on the bus, and we learn its etiquette just as surely. We feel a responsibility and a duty to one another that isn’t just a matter of the social contract, but lives deep within our bones because when we’re out here, face to face, body to body, we can’t hurt someone else without hurting ourselves too.
This went a different direction than I was expecting. Thanks for sharing your perspective! I am guessing this will be more and more of an issue in the future, as this kind of technology becomes easier and more common…
Or less as people get more experience riding those things and norms develop that reduce conflict?
I agree with you, Adam! To me, it feels more like we’re at this crossroads where many people don’t have much of a walking/biking/non-car culture to draw from for how to move in public, but this will shift with more experiences to build on. I had written a bit about that, but edited it out, but we even see it seasonally–people who aren’t all-season walkers seem to forget how to share paths in the first flush of spring, but it all settles out eventually.
And there are also plenty of us who’re transit-dependent, car-free, biking and walking out of necessity and not just choice, which means we’re not starting from scratch at all. But it does require the people transitioning out of cars to look for leadership from people whom they may generally disregard–I know that if I can treat others walking with half as much recognition, kindness, and empathy as most of the people experiencing homelessness that I see regularly in my walks, I will be a better person for it.
One of those transportation-norm things came to mind yesterday for me as I passed the stop where it happened. I was getting off the 21 at Nicollet into a super icy snow bank (front exit/loading that winter), with a very heavy backpack. I went down like a helpless turtle and like before I’d even fully landed on my back, the many hands of strangers waiting to board had me plopped back firmly and solidly on my feet.
I see this mindset in elderly relatives who pre-date car-culture here–one honestly EXPECTS to be able to run across the street against the light for his bus when it’s pulling up, because to him, transit is still a universal enough form of transportation that drivers will have that empathetic response of helping him get across. And I experience the inverse of it when I find that having my (house)keys in hand as I cross at an unsignalized T-intersection helps reduce driver aggression towards me–they think I’m one of them, crossing to a parked car
I’m curious how these pro-social norms develop and spread and would love to see a streets post on it if you’ve got one simmering!
(Phew! But yeah! Norm and culture shifts take time and we can’t judge a mode so early!)
It (being hit by someone riding an electric scooter) went a different direction than I was expecting! I was honestly shocked at how my amygdala/brain processed it into something akin to “that person who bumps you unexpectedly on the bus” rather than something worse.
This is awesome. Thank you for sharing, Julia. It really does make a difference when we all have skin, literally, in the game and are outside of a metal cage.
Thanks, Mike! It reminds me of a study I came across sometime last year showing that when people biking collide with people walking, the people biking are virtually always injured more than the people walking.
Great article Julie!
This kind of plays in to the principles of Dutch Sustainable Safety. One of the key elements is:
Homogeneity of mass, speed and direction
This is what led them to their three tier transport system; Walking, Bicycles & Mobility Scooters, motor vehicles.
There is growing angst in The Netherlands about new technologies that don’t fit so cleanly. Higher powered e-bikes and mopeds are the key focus since they can certainly violate the speed element and some also violate mass. One interesting thing they’re looking at is if throttles make a difference since it appears that the more of their own power that people provide the more considerate they are of others… and vice versa.
Scooters (of the two-tiny-wheel variety you’ve mentioned) are just now becoming an issue. I rode one through Amsterdam last week and also encountered some as I was walking or biking. They work fairly well on bikeways, not so well on roadways (too little mass/speed relative to motor vehicles) or walkways (too much speed relative to people walking).