Sidewalks Are for People, Not Cars

The incident was not exactly of the magnitude of the Bernhard Goetz affair, but it does say something about the current state of urban civility and design, and the rights of pedestrians and responsibilities of automobile drivers.

It happened on a gray Saturday afternoon a few weeks ago in Santa Monica on a pleasant neighborhood commercial street along which my wife and I like to stroll, shop, eat ice cream and take in the sights.

While the walk for me is diverting, a nice break from my weekend gardening, for my wife it is an essential exercise now that she is in the last few weeks of her pregnancy.

The incident occurred at a gasoline station and mini-market similar in siting and design to the type I recently criticized in these columns for its lack of concern for streetscapes and its potential danger to pedestrians.

The column was prescient, for as we were walking past the station where three cars were lined up at the street-side pumps, the third car, a Porsche, lurched out of line, off the station's asphalt driveway and onto the concrete public sidewalk. Apparently the driver wanted to get ahead of the other cars to an empty forward pump, a common maneuver at self-serve stations.

Began Backing Up

Whatever the reason, we were forced to step with some trepidation into the street to give the car a wide berth as it edged along the sidewalk, only stepping back onto the sidewalk after it passed us. So much for pedestrians having the right-of-way, even on sidewalks.

However, after we had taken a few steps on the sidewalk, the Porsche began backing up. Startled, I stepped in front of my wife and tapped the left rear fender of the car to alert the driver and yelled "stop." The car stopped.

As we cautiously side-stepped left past the car, which was still hogging the sidewalk, I commented to the driver that "sidewalks are for pedestrians." The response was a sharp obscenity.

Perhaps out of naivete, I was expecting an apology, a simple "excuse me," or "I'm sorry," the type of courtesy one hopes for but unfortunately seldom gets on a city street these days.

Annoyed, I called the driver's attention to the condition of my wife, who was then eight months pregnant. Cursing us, the driver got out of the car to see if I had caused any damage by my tapping.

Provoked, I slapped the car, denting with my right palm the left rear fender. It was amazing to me how soft the fender felt as it folded in. And how nice.

My gesture prompted a scene, drawing some enthusiastic spectators and a call for the police. Within minutes, three police cars converged on the gas station, sirens blaring and lights flashing. The Santa Monica police obviously take pride in their response time.

Though I admitted slapping the fender and the police said the driver admitted driving on the sidewalk, no citations were issued. Patrolman Joseph Gardner, the officer in charge at the scene, said in effect that we were both in the wrong and urged us to go our separate ways.

Legal and emotional issues aside, the entire incident could have been avoided if the station had been designed to be more sensitive to the streetscape, limiting its curb cuts and putting up some sort of barrier between its service area and the sidewalk.

As it now exists, cars using the station have preempted the sidewalk, leaving the pedestrian out in the street and in the cold. In effect, the station has expanded to the curb at the public's expense. And as we learned, it is hard to argue with a car, even if you do have the right-of-way.

According to police and planners, the conflict between pedestrians and vehicles at curb cuts and cross walks, as well as at gasoline stations and mini-markets, has become an increasing source of incidents.

The problem has been noted by the Santa Monica Planning Department and Planning Commission, with the department studying specific zoning and building requirements for gasoline stations, now that the city's land use element has been approved.

City Manager John Jalili and Planning Director Paul Silvern say they would like to see some requirement for existing as well as proposed service stations and markets along busy shopping streets to better define their boundaries and take into consideration the safety of passing pedestrians. "It is an obvious problem," Jalili said.

Pedestrians on Defensive

Meanwhile, the continuing war between people and cars in the Los Angeles area continues, with pedestrians having to be very much on the defensive.

Aggravating this small war is what seems to be an increasing, corresponding lack of civility. Common courtesy or simply politeness apparently are seen these days as a mark of weakness when being tough, if not coarse, is in vogue. On the street and behind the wheel one is taught to be on guard, a posture that does not generate amiability.

Good fences may or may not make good neighbors, but by separating pedestrians and vehicles along sidewalks bordering gasoline stations and markets they could prevent people from becoming enemies.

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