Sandwich board sign on an empty sidewalk, reading “Pedestrian Priority Zone: Please walk bikes / no scooters”

Human spaces reconceptualized for machines

Published 2020-01-16

Almost every day I ride through Riverplace, a lovely wide car-free path, lined with shops & apartments, opening onto the Marina, just south of downtown. But I keep encountering signs that read:

Please Walk Bikes
No Scooters

Of course I shittweeted about it:

I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that commerce in this zone is dropping off in direct proportion to the lack of easy access here. It’s not a convenient place to arrive at, by foot or by car. But easy by bike, or scooter!

Whatever it is that makes the Riverplace merchants’ association (or whoever) put up these signs is misguided at best.

But I think it’s worse than that. I think this reflects a pathological mindset that conceptualizes only two speeds: slow like walking and fast like a car. When the only experience you have of a non-walking speed is cars, being next to something moving faster than walking feels fast like a car. That’s why people on foot get so spooked when a bike buzzes close by. Our only experience with something moving fast(ish) near our unprotected bodies is fast like a car that will kill us.

Cars so dominate our concept of the world that we can imagine outdoor spaces — even carfree ones — only within the context of cars. We cease to conceptualize outdoor spaces as human spaces. The only acceptable activities are driving to a barricaded place and then walking around in circles. Anything else is potentially fatal.

Like all human spaces until the last century or so, the speed design of Riverplace is largely self-correcting. When it’s crowded (5pm on a warm September evening), you’d have to be really bloody minded to even try to ride a bike through here. If you insist on riding, you do it at walking speed, and use your human voice to say “excuse me” to the other humans who are there. But at 6am on a rainy January morning — why not go fast? There’s no one to hit.

It is a human scale space that encourages interaction with other humans, using human communication, at human speeds, with human ambiguities, with human consequences. If a cyclist and walker tangle the cyclist is almost as likely to break a bone as the other person — and broken bones are the usual worst case scenario in such occasions. Compare to a car crash where a broken collar bone is a good outcome. But walking/riding here requires negotiating & interacting with other people, absent the legal and mechanical frameworks we’re used to elsewhere (ie. in a car)

This is what I like about Riverplace, its human scale. That and the pretty boats. And Upstream Coffee

Signs and mode separations and barriers and rumble strips and MUPs and ROWs are the idiom of machines, of carving up the landscape such that two ton metal boxes won’t crush 200 pound sacks of meat into…er…hamburger. (Sorry the metaphor is getting a little gruesome.)

Maybe that’s what bugs whoever put up those signs at Riverfront Place: human ambiguity at penny stakes, when we are used to the crisp and legalistic delineations of the (often fatal) machine interactions we’ve unfortunately become accustomed to.