Washington is a walkable city. Tarpley Long should know. At age 78, she walks about five miles here every day.
That gives Tarpley plenty of time to contemplate an issue she finds troubling. As she writes: “Why are there no rules that govern the use of sidewalks like there are for traffic and bike lanes?”
First of all, it’s sweet that Tarpley thinks there are rules governing traffic and bike lanes. I mean, there are rules, but plenty of people think they’re optional.
But back to the issue at hand — er, foot. Writes Tarpley: “Half the time I am walking down Connecticut Avenue, for example, I face a phalanx of men or women coming toward me who take up every inch of the sidewalk, leaving me the choice of throwing myself into traffic or into shrubbery in front of a building. Usually, I scream, ‘Excuse me,’ and stop dead in my tracks, which usually results in one or more people giving way.
“This seems unnecessary. Could you write about sidewalk manners? Are not sidewalks two-way passages? Or, any hints as to how to alert people walking toward you that they are about to run you over?”
Funny you should mention it. My Lovely Wife and I were having this very conversation just the other day. She is of the opinion that the same rules that govern the road — keep to the right — should apply on the sidewalk. She adheres to this practice even when an oncoming crowd surges toward her like the unleashed waters of a broken dam.
Not long ago, we were casually ambling in the city when a family of four approached from the opposite direction. Now, even the narrowest nonresidential sidewalk typically has room for four people abreast. In a perfect world, the family would have arranged itself into two consecutive groups of two, allowing our little Kelly two-ship to pass without drama. But they didn’t. They apparently owned the sidewalk — or had rented it for the afternoon.
We plastered ourselves to the wall as they paraded by like a push broom.
“Did we used to do that?” I asked my wife. “When our kids were young, did we walk en masse?”
“No,” Ruth said through gritted teeth. “Don’t you remember me shouting, ‘Single file! Single file!’?”
And then it came back to me: Mama Duck Kelly exhorting the little Kelly ducklings to get in line. It was part of the maternal soundtrack, along with “Cover your mouth when you cough” and “Push in your chair when you leave the table.”
It would be smugly satisfying to say that parents — and pedestrians — have changed in the 20 years since we raised our perfect children, to say that millennials have ruined sidewalks like they’ve ruined everything else.
But that would be wrong.
On Sept. 18, 1887, a letter appeared in The Washington Post under the headline “Keep to the Right.” The letter began: “I trust you will permit one of your readers to invite the attention of your host of readers to what I conceive to be a very obvious matter, but one which seems not to have struck most of them.
“I refer to a point of courtesy among pedestrians of this city. Common sense suggested the rule, and almost universal custom sanctions it, that every one should keep to the right.”
The letter writer — who went by the pseudonym “Pedestrian” — claimed this practice was followed in every other civilized country in the world.
“The adoption of this rule, by our sometimes crowded population, would be a boon of comfort and convenience to all parties,” the correspondent continued. “The liberal width of our sidewalks affords no manner of excuse for ignoring a matter of personal urbanity.
“Since our National Capital is taking its place among the handsomest cities of the world it would be a pity that foreign visitors should be forced to believe that the sidewalk amenities here have so ill kept pace with sidewalk improvements.”
What this tells me is that courtesy and common sense were no more universal in 19th-century Washington than they are in 21st-century Washington.
Many aspects of public life would be improved if we simply noticed the people around us and tried to minimize the ways we impinge upon them, whether it’s the noise we make, the smoke we exhale, the dogs we walk or the space we take up.
What can be done? Well, everyone who reads this column will amend their practice. Obviously. But what about those who don’t, who continue to blithely sweep down the sidewalk like an offensive line?
I suppose an air horn would be too much.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.