He’d parked the van across the footpath, pulling up until the footplate at the back door touched the wooden gate of the entrance beside the shop. The footpath was wide in this spot, but this van was one of those extra long ones. It blocked the entire footpath and stuck out beyond it, the width of the parallel parking spaces lining the street. To get around it, I would have to walk in the street itself. He was sitting in the van, so I caught his eye and did a what now? shrug. He understood, which means he was not unaware that his conduct was problematic: he gestured generously to the road in front of him, where he felt I should be walking. I shook my head, and he wound down his window.
“Hi, sorry you’re blocking the whole footpath, I can’t get past you,” I said.
“There’s loads of space right there.”
“You mean in the road?”
“That space is for cars, not for pedestrians. The footpath is for pedestrians.”
“Oh come on, it’s not as if there’s any traffic.” He gestured to the empty early-morning street.
“You are parked illegally, why should I have to walk in the road to accommodate that? You’re the one breaking the law.”
“Yeah whatever.” He wound his window back up.
So what was I to do? Because like David Bowman in Space Odyssey entering a mysterious monolith and uttering that stunned declaration of sudden understanding, my study of the problems surrounding sustainable transport uptake brought me understanding of how the base attitude of “I follow traffic rules when I judge it to be necessary” is directly responsible for hundreds of deaths. Everytime you park on a footpath; everytime the light is red for you and green for pedestrians but you pull away because feck it, you can’t see anyone crossing the road; everytime you park on a yellow line; everytime you see that sign saying 60 but hey, everyone else is doing 80 – you carry on your shoulders that driver going too fast to see that child. You push down on the pedal that saw that young man flying across the tar to his death. You help create the paradigm of “follow the rules if you feel like it” that kills, maims, widows, orphans.
The van driver was right, I was almost certain to be safe walking in the road for the ten steps or so that would see me past his massive obstruction. Almost, compared to certainly if I were able to walk on the footpath. But doing so would be agreeing that he has a right to decide on my behalf what is safe and what is not. Walking in the road, even if there’s no traffic, is uncomfortable. It’s unpleasant. Why should I accept that experience to facilitate him breaking the law?
So what did I do? Well, I went to the back of the van, and saw it was pulled as flush to the gate behind it as was possible. But it had a footplate running the breadth of the van, so there was a small gap he couldn’t avoid leaving, with all the will in the world. I climbed onto it and squeezed past his van. It was unpleasant, but it was absolutely worth it. I did not walk in the road just because he decided that’s what I should do.
What upset me all day yesterday is that the vast majority of people would likely think I was being ridiculous, unreasonable. Making a big deal out of nothing. I’ll tell you where there was a comparable situation: in Apartheid South Africa. Black people were not allowed to walk on pavements, or they had to step off the pavement if it was necessary to make way for white people. You could apply the same argument: why make a fuss, it’s a small thing, just don’t let it bother you. Well, it bothers me. And it should bother everyone.