How To Be a Pedestrian

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   February 7, 2023

Until recently, the only way for most people to get to most places was on foot. Horses were too expensive, and trains, planes, and cars didn’t yet exist. “Shanks’ Pony” was a jocular way of referring to walking.

But with the development of modern street-traffic, among the automobiles, trucks, buses, motorcycles, and regular bicycles, there emerged what can only be called a new kind of vehicle – the Pedestrian. As a vehicle, it had many advantages. It was extremely maneuverable. It could stop, start, and turn faster than anything else on the road. Unfortunately, it was also more vulnerable, and special provisions had to be made, to separate it, as much as possible, from all the other forms of traffic. At ground level, there were “cross-walks,” where the only actual protection was in the form of laws requiring other traffic to stop while pedestrians were crossing. Much safer, but much more costly, were underground tunnels and overhead bridges.

But many streets, especially in urban areas, had special pathways, on one or both sides, which were reserved for pedestrians. They were called “sidewalks,” and cars, horses, and even bicycles, were banned from them – although I myself have contrary feelings about the bicycle usage. However, since many houses and other buildings have their own garages or parking areas, cars must be allowed to cross the sidewalks, usually on “driveways,” which creates an additional hazard
for pedestrians.

In the days when there were many horses on the streets, there were numerous on-street “parking places” for them, frequently (especially in wealthier neighborhoods) in the form of a single large carved rock, with a steel ring, to serve as a “hitching post” to which your horse could be tied. In our town, there are still a surprising number of these historical relics, which obviously haven’t been used for many years, but which for some reason have been left in place. It may be just that they’re not in anybody’s way, and would cost too much to remove. But local history is not always so cherished.

Nowadays there are more modern hitching posts – poles and racks for locking bicycles to and charging stations for the batteries of electric vehicles. 

Where there are sidewalks, there will also probably be curbs, and where there are curbs, you will inevitably find street gutters, which are mainly intended to carry rainwater to sewer drains. A secondary usage by the general public is as a dumping area for small pieces of trash and other debris. This has given rise to our idiomatic use of the term “gutter” to refer to something disdained and repugnant. Thus we have the most sensational kind of journalism being characterized as the “gutter press” and the most wretched type of lifestyle can be described as “living in the gutter.”

Sidewalks have a surprisingly ancient history, going back thousands of years. One well-preserved specimen still to be seen (I have walked on it myself) is in the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcano in 79 A.D. In the capital city of Rome, pedestrians were so numerous, and vehicular traffic so prolific, dangerous, and noisy, that it was actually banned from the city center at certain times.

But to be an authentic pedestrian, there are two things you usually need: feet and footwear. Concerning feet, it has always seemed strange to me that the part of the body which bears all the weight and has most direct contact with the ground, and which you would therefore expect to be the toughest, is actually one of the most sensitive and tender – the sole.

Feet are also a religious and cultural item. Some groups have taboos about showing the feet. In the Arab world this is a common prejudice, and it explains why it is very hard to find a podiatrist in Saudi Arabia. 

In the lore of shoes, one interesting fact is that our words “sabotage” and “saboteur” derive from the French “sabot,” which was a kind of wooden shoe once worn by many laborers. There are various theories about how, at times of industrial strife, a sabot might have been used to clog machinery, or in some other way, interfere with production.

The best shoe joke I know is attributed to Jack Handey and comes as a piece of wise advice: “Before you criticize a man, first walk a mile in his shoes. Then, when you criticize him, you’ll already be a mile away – and you’ll have his shoes!” 


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