Abigail Johnson has spent most of her adulthood car-free, living in New York for nearly a decade and then in Uptown Minneapolis for the past two years.
As chair of the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Committee, she has been encouraged by how many other walkers she’s been encountering during the pandemic.
“I’m hoping it leads to people realizing that walking is just such a wonderful way to do a lot of daily activities,” Johnson said. “People are slowly realizing how good walking is for your mental and physical health. You’re combining all these wonderful aspects of being with your community, in your community. You’re getting exercise, you’re running errands, and you’re smiling at people face-to-face.”
Bill Lindeke, an urban geographer in St. Paul who pens the Twin City Sidewalks blog, concurs. He calls the walking trend “a silver lining” to the crisis, and ticks off a list of positives: It’s healthy, it’s fun and you observe things that you normally wouldn’t see if you’re driving.
But one of the things Lindeke has observed, as have so many others out on foot, is how ill-equipped our sidewalks are to handle increased pedestrian traffic — especially for those trying to social-distance.
“Our streets and sidewalks aren’t really ideally designed for a lot of walking,” he said. “A lot of cities that are designed for walking have much wider sidewalks than we do in the United States.”
Most residential sidewalks in the Twin Cities are about 5 feet wide — too narrow to maintain a 6-foot buffer when parties pass one another. A once-simple stroll can now feel like a real-life version of the video game Frogger, dodging other walkers and joggers.
Although professor Ingrid Schneider studies recreational trail users’ behaviors and attitudes, some of her research might help us better understand these encounters, which she’s heard described as “sidewalk chicken.”
Through her work for the University of Minnesota’s Department of Forest Resources, she has been seeing density and spacing issues on trails long before the arrival of coronavirus. Her decade-old survey of Minnesota trail hikers found that nearly half of respondents had experienced conflict from other recreationalists passing too closely or not yielding.
Now that the threat of coronavirus has made “a seemingly simple navigation so much more complex,” she recommends that walkers use kindness and common sense and watch the “sidewalk rage.”
The pedestrian equivalent of road rage, which has been documented by University of Hawaii researchers, is backed up by Schneider’s survey of trail users, which found that roughly 20% of respondents said they reacted to an interference by expressing anger to the person who caused the incident.
Following a few simple guidelines for sidewalk etiquette should help improve the experience on city sidewalks or parkland trails.
Before you go
Plan your route: Lindeke encourages pedestrians to select less-traveled routes when possible, avoiding the city lakes and rivers, as well as other popular areas with natural amenities. Better to walk in residential neighborhoods around where you live, or to explore other less-busy areas farther afield.
Be aware: Pay attention to people you’re going to encounter half a block ahead and those coming up behind you. Be especially mindful if you’re on your phone or have earbuds in. This isn’t really the time for deep thinking or daydreaming during walks. “Try not to get too self-absorbed,” Lindeke said.
Give a sign of acknowledgment: A quick hello, head nod or smile (for the unmasked) is a good way to start. “I think it gets people out of their shells when you have to talk to a stranger,” Johnson said. “I think you wake up a little inside and it softens the edges.”
Scoot over: There’s no need to invent a new set of hand signals to indicate your intentions, Johnson said. Just move over as soon as you see someone approaching. She often crosses to the other side of the street as soon as she notices another party coming her way, “just to let them know, like, ‘Walk in peace, I’m already far away.’ ”
Make room if you can: “Able-bodied folks like myself who are in relatively good health and spry enough to go jogging have a responsibility to make sure that we’re not inconveniencing people with more mobility challenges,” Lindeke said.
Forget the hierarchy: Should a parent pushing a stroller move over for a kid learning to bike? Does a dog walker defer to someone carrying a parcel? Don’t bother engaging in a complex calculus of whose needs trump whose, “Just get out of the way,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t matter who it is coming at you, how physically able they are, who they are, what they’re doing,” she said. “Do it for everybody.”
Dodge adventurously: Johnson suggests seeing your walk as an adventure and turning front lawns, boulevards and streets into your personal parkour course. “If you’re physically able, hop in the grass, jump off the curb, do a somersault up the steep hill on the side of your apartment building — just get out of the way,” she said.
Queue up and hush up: If you’re in a group, get into single file as you pass others. “One of you falls back behind the other until you pass,” explained Juliet Mitchell, a St. Paul etiquette trainer.
Extend the courtesy even further and stop talking as you pass. While a brief foray through someone else’s airspace constitutes a low risk for virus transmission, closing your mouth can be a sign of respect. “You are giving the indication: I can’t control everything, but I care enough about you to be inconvenienced for a few seconds,” she said.
Joggers should hit the streets: Heavy breathing by runners can disperse aerosols further, increasing the chance of spreading infection and making those around them anxious. Mask-less runners, especially, should consider eschewing the sidewalks for low-traffic streets, Johnson advised.
When conflicts arise
Don’t scold: If a cyclist is riding cautiously through a nearly empty pedestrian parkway, there’s really no need to scold them, Johnson said. Neighbors congregating on the sidewalk to chat may not realize they’re blocking the walking lane — cut them some slack.
Say “Excuse me”: If you have limited mobility and someone’s in your way, politely ask for space. Mitchell suggests saying, “Excuse me, I’m social-distancing,’ ” in a lighthearted tone.
Keep walking: If another person makes a rude comment about your sidewalk etiquette or social-distancing practices, Mitchell advises ignoring the remarks. “Keep a-steppin’,” she said. “Don’t give them the satisfaction of knowing they riled you up. Don’t give them your energy. Life’s too short. You don’t have to always respond. Just notice it for what it is and keep moving.”