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Where are all the fantasy pedestrians?

Daniel Herridges of Strong Towns says, “If your goal is to promote public safety, design for the humans you have, not the ones you wish you had.”

Advocates for people who walk or bike are often at their wits’ end when dealing with people who drive and who complain about pedestrians crossing streets mid-block or doing all those other things that make drivers so self-righteous, like wearing hoodies or listening to music. Daniel Herriges of Strong Towns has put a name to the phenomenon; he calls it the cult of the fantasy pedestrian.

This is the imaginary creature who follows the letter of what drivers think is the law. The Fantasy Pedestrian will walk a couple of hundred yards to a crosswalk instead of just crossing the street. The Fantasy Pedestrian will hit the beg button and wait forever. The Fantasy Pedestrian will never cross the street with the don’t walk countdown going.

Designing streets for the Fantasy Pedestrian is really, really easy, because their behavior is 100 percent predictable in every circumstance. Just lay out the rules. But designing streets for real people, who take shortcuts and do spontaneous and expedient and sometimes even foolhardy things, requires more critical thought.

There are fantasy cyclists too. They never roll through stop signs; they always wear hi-viz and helmets even when they are going a few blocks. “Most of our bike facilities are designed for fantasy cyclists, and our bike laws are written for them.”

A few years ago in Toronto there was a debate about people crossing mid-block. Deputy Mayor Denzil Minnan-Wong asked, “What do you do with these people?” Twitter responded, “Kill them, obv.” That was sarcasm, but it was not far from the truth in the world of the fantasy pedestrian. As Herriges notes,

Those in cars matter more than those on foot. In fact, the convenience of those in cars matters more than the survival of those on foot.

Herriges says so clearly what I have been trying to say for years: fix the design because you can’t fix the people. Or as the late Toronto Mayor Rob Ford used to say about fantasy cyclists:

The pedestrian who breaks traffic laws in any fashion isn’t deemed worthy of our protection. Whatever happens to them is sad, but it’s their own fault. Should have obeyed the law. There’s no practical solution.

Or as I have written:

This is not a legal issue, it is fundamentally about bad design. Cyclists don’t go through stop signs or ride the wrong way because they are evil law-breakers; neither are most drivers who go over the speed limit. Drivers do it because the roads are designed for cars to go fast, so they go fast. Cyclists go through stop signs because they are there to make cars go slow, not to stop bikes.

there is a subway stop on the other side.But they left room for cars and worker parking! / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

As Herridge notes, “If your goal is to promote public safety, design for the humans you have, not the ones you wish you had.” Or, as often happens, the humans you wish you didn’t have.

I have always been a fan of Strong Towns, and this one’s a keeper. For years I have ignored their calls to Join the Movement, but this post was worth paying for. I just did.

Daniel Herridges of Strong Towns says, “If your goal is to promote public safety, design for the humans you have, not the ones you wish you had.”

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