I’ve been doing a lot of walking lately and I’ve been surprised at how much rudeness and incivility I see. But then again, sidewalks are really just a microcosm of society in general. If we can’t share the concrete, how can we expect to share space, ideas and resources among all the different people in our cities?
Most sidewalks in the residential area where I live are wide enough for two people walking in different directions to pass each other comfortably. When I’m walking alone, I tend to walk in the middle of the sidewalk. I think most people do the same. But when I see someone coming toward me, I shift to the right side of the concrete to give him or her room to pass.
It constantly surprises me how many people stay in the middle of the sidewalk. I know they’ve seen me, but they don’t make any move to the side. I’m forced to the extreme right-hand side of the concrete or even onto the grass alongside as we pass.
Sidewalk etiquette may seem trivial, given the serious problems we face every day. But it is an acknowledgment that we share our urban space with others and that we have to consider and accommodate their needs along with our own.
That sense of common courtesy is largely lacking these days. We see the lack in instances of road rage, when one car accidentally cuts off another. Or when presidential candidates belittle each other. Or when people shout down those with whom they disagree. The general social discourse is not particularly pleasant right now. And that harshness has spilled over onto our sidewalks.
I was walking up a slight hill not long ago. A young boy on a scooter headed downhill toward me. He must have just learned how to ride because he was swerving from side to side as he picked up speed. His mother and teenage sister were about 15 yards behind him. I had to retreat into a driveway and wait for him to pass, since I didn’t trust he wouldn’t run into me if I had stayed on the sidewalk. Throughout his approach, his mother never said anything to him — never told him to slow down, or to stop, or to watch out for other people.
A minute later, I came up to his mother and sister, walking side by side. Once again, I had to step into a driveway as they passed, since neither yielded one inch of sidewalk for me. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised the boy didn’t have any sidewalk etiquette. Clearly, his mom couldn’t teach him something she herself didn’t know.
If everyone paid more attention to the people walking near them, actively trying to share the sidewalk equally, maybe we would get a little more in the habit of thinking about the needs of others, not just ourselves. Think of it as stretching and strengthening your civility muscles at the same time you stretch and strengthen your legs.
When faced with all the anger, hate and prejudice that permeate so much of society, it’s easy to just throw up your hands and give up. It seems too much for any one person to change. But the idea of showing more courtesy to others as you walk down the sidewalk is something anyone and everyone can do. It’s an easy way to teach our children to be more considerate of others. And it just might help make San Francisco a kinder, more civil place to live.
After all, the rest of society starts just outside your front door … on the sidewalk.
Sally Stephens is an animal, park, and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.