Why America Needs a Pedestrian Movement

July 15, 2010

Guest article by Raymond F. Thomas, J.D. of Swanson, Thomas & Coon

Everyone walks, or rolls at some point in their lives. And while all people participate in  this activity, few identify themselves as sharing some sort of special bond with other pedestrians.  

But people on foot or in wheelchairs, on blades, skateboards or in jog strollers all share the freedom and vulnerability that comes with human power. And most folks fail to realize that the length of time they are forced to wait for a “walk” signal, how often the sidewalk is maintained or swept, and whether or not they can count on law enforcement protection of the right of way in a crosswalk, are each dependent on the types of policy considerations that contain great potential for expansion or loss of the basic human right of way.

If parents cannot count on automobile drivers to honor a student’s right of way on the sidewalk or in the crosswalk, they are going to be reluctant to allow that child to go to school on foot.

If walking commuters are discouraged by poorly designed dangerous intersections they will not want to walk to work. When the laws governing pedestrian rights to use the shoulder are confusing or unfair people will be afraid to walk on public rights of way in rural areas.

But across America all of these negative examples combine every day to discourage humans from using their strong legs to get around, and we are all the worse for it.

In our law firm we have spent almost thirty years fighting for the rights of people who use the streets and roads without encasing themselves in steel exoskeletons, people who use their own power to get around. Whether it’s in the courts, the legislature or on the street, we are committed to using the law to advance the legal rights of non-motorized roadway users. Our efforts have met with some success. We try to use every case we take to court to educate and inspire others to recognize the basic human right of safe passage. And it is this same spirit that has led us to take a role in founding America Walks work to build a national walking movement. We believe that only by forming a national coalition of pedestrian advocates will we succeed in making the necessary changes to make safe walking a viable option in every city and town. We are excited to see America Walks take an organizational leap to helping pedestrian advocates create a national movement.

In 1999 we wrote Oregon’s first bicycle legal guide, “Pedal Power: A Legal Guide for Oregon Bicyclists”, now in its seventh printing. In addition we produced a series of articles exploring the rights of human powered road users. We sponsored a series of lectures and safety presentations that continues through the present. Then in 2008 we wrote Oregon’s first pedestrian legal guide, “Oregon Pedestrian Rights: A Legal Guide for Persons on Foot”. We avoided the clichés often associated with “pedestrian safety” that seemed to scold persons on foot into wearing bright colors and telling people to only walk with the “walk” signal; instead we analyzed the legal foundations for our rights to the sidewalk, the crosswalk and the roadside, demonstrating that the ebb and flow of pedestrian rights is based upon the political power of the pedestrian “movement”.

We often wished for a national coalition that would provide a national identity for the local and regional groups we worked with. Now we are excited to help America Walks fulfill that role, and to play a part in developing a national legal agenda to further the rights of persons on foot.

Raymond F. Thomas