Chuck Nevius: People Who Don’t Walk in Fear Are Part of a “Militant Cult”

When KQED asked Jason Henderson in a recent interview whether distracted pedestrians are contributing to a rise in traffic injuries and fatalities, he countered the nonsense. “Well, let’s think of it this way,” said Henderson, the author of Street Fight: The Politics of Mobility in San Francisco. “A pedestrian talking on the phone that bumps into another pedestrian is probably not going to result in a fatality.”

The Chronicle’s Chuck Nevius begs to differ in his column today. Nevius apparently has nothing but scorn for people who “step confidently into the crosswalk” — “even when they’re right” — saying they’re part of a “militant cult.”

For Nevius, ranting from behind the windshield is old hat, so his latest drivel is not exactly a big surprise. Still, it’s kind of astounding that the Chronicle thinks it’s okay to publish a column ranting about seniors who enter the crosswalk near the end of a countdown signal. Nevius is taken aback, for instance, by a “little old lady, carrying a cane, who stepped blithely off the curb with one tick left on the crossing clock. She tottered across three lanes of traffic with cars waiting, but I can’t say she was oblivious. She held her free hand up in a ‘stop’ gesture.”

Nevius apparently feels that San Franciscans need to be reminded that they should expect to get run over when they walk. “The pedestrians in San Francisco are freaking nuts,” Nevius wrote. Yet he admits he, too, crosses the street — gasp — and dabbles in the cult’s “nutty” way of life:

We have lots of jaywalkers near The Chronicle building. Which is understandable — long blocks, people downtown in a hurry. I’ve jaywalked and I am likely to do so again. But I also think I’d better watch it. I’m in the middle of the street, no crosswalk, and cars may not stop.

At least Nevius starts off his column with “the necessary stipulation” that “granted, drivers in San Francisco are a menace… and generally scare the bejeebers out of all of us. Bad, drivers, bad.” Then comes the follow-up: “having fulfilled our politically correct responsibilities, we can get back to the real topic.”

To Nevius, the “real topic” is not the drivers piloting multi-ton motor vehicles through the streets, who can maim or kill a human being when they mess up. The focus must be on the behavior of those pesky, unarmored human beings. (“He might as well tell us that he has lots of friends who are pedestrians too,” one Streetsblog commenter remarked.)

Nevius has previously indicated that he knows better, and that danger on the streets has nothing to do with pedestrian behavior. In a November 2012 column, he cited SFMTA data showing that driver violations are the cause of most pedestrian crashes, and said, “It is pretty hard to escape the conclusion — it’s the drivers’ fault.”

The takeaway here, like Henderson argued, is that while you can’t hurt someone else by walking around inattentively, the consequences of negligent behavior are multiplied by magnitudes when you’re driving a car. Pedestrians bumping into each other probably won’t result in hospitalizations, deaths, or a traffic shutdown for a police investigation. The worse case scenario may be some spilled coffee.

It’s also worth noting another Chronicle column from Heather Knight last weekend, titled, “Walkers just add to perils on San Francisco streets.” This was a follow-up to her column from the previous week, “Resolution: Let’s all be nicer on San Francisco streets,” which pretty much got it right on street safety (Knight even fielded comments from me, which was a first for the Chronicle).

In her first piece, Knight generally took a peacemaker approach, and focused on the issue of reckless driving and the city’s efforts to address it. But Knight said that rankled a lot of readers who felt pedestrians didn’t get their fair share of scolding: “According to many readers who responded to the column, drivers here may be awful, but the city’s pedestrians aren’t exactly the most diligent and law-abiding citizens either.” Knight apparently felt she had to do another piece to balance things out.

The part that struck me most about her follow-up piece, though, was the headline: “Walkers just add to perils on San Francisco streets.” It says a lot about prevalent attitudes toward the simple act of walking — as if people who walk are some sort of distinct group, when in fact we’re all out on the sidewalks and crosswalks at some point. Exit your car, and you’re a pedestrian.

And the notion that “walkers just add to perils” is odd. A street with only “walkers” would be peril-free. Why not say, “Walkers just add to life on San Francisco’s streets”? After all, when we use terms like “walkers” or “pedestrians,” it obscures the fact that we’re really just talking about people in the public space of our city.

When you spend as much time as Nevius does behind the windshield, though, maybe people just become obstacles.