Last year there was some discussion as to what should, or could, be done about the Liardet- Bay Street intersection, alongside Coles. Vehicles turning off Bay Street in Liardet Street were supposed to give way to pedestrians, as highlighted in this post on the local councillor’s blog. In practice, crossing Liardet Street was not so simple.
I heard reports from people living in the area that there should be a set of traffic lights. The council decided that they could put in a pedestrian crossing. The pedestrian crossing was installed, with the section of the road raised to footpath height and white lines painted on, earlier this year.
Ghassan Hage’s (2000) ‘On the ethics of the pedestrian crossing’ provides the account of a migrant to Australia who describes how, when he was experiencing mental illness, he would walk back and forth across pedestrian crossings enjoying how the cars would stop for him. While the example of the pedestrian crossing is used to illustrate a more fundamental claim on the nature of social recognition, this post uses Hage’s discussion on face value to illustrate how the Liardet Street pedestrian crossing is a pretty good example of the social and political nature of infrastructure.
Ghassan Hage explains,
‘a pedestrian crossing is an ethical structural fact. It is a space where the dominant mode of occupying and circulating on roads is required by social law to yield to a marginalised form of road occupancy, walking. This is what constitutes its ethical component and its character as a social gift. It is social because even when it is an individual driver who ‘offers’ the pedestrian the possibility of crossing, what the driver is offering or, better still, conveying, is really society’s gift to the pedestrian. Otherwise there would be no difference between the space of a pedestrian crossing and a conjunctural space of crossing created by a driver who chooses to stop for a pedestrian at an unmarked part of a road. The fact that it embodies a social compulsion, a social law, that says ‘drivers must stop’ is what makes it a gift offered by society.’ (Hage 2000: 30)
In other words, the pedestrian crossing is ‘a gift offered by society’ because our society creates and codifies the rules for the operation of pedestrian crossings. While individual drivers and pedestrians negotiate using the space safely, or may fail to do so, they should be aware of the rules for using a pedestrian crossing. While pedestrians already had right of way when it came to the cars turning into Liardet Street from Bay Street, the pedestrian crossing made more visible this right, and also extended it so that all cars approaching that point would be required to give way.
As somebody who crosses Liardet Street frequently, I was quite impressed with the amount of time I saved as a result of the pedestrian crossing. However, I am very mobile and, after a few years of commuter cycling, very used to taking on the risk of judging when a car is ultimately going to notice you have right of way and stop. Not everybody found the white lines painted on the road as helpful. I still find pedestrians paused waiting for a gap in the traffic to cross, and the occasional car dangerously whizzing through.
There are different ways of using and misusing a pedestrian crossing,
‘But underneath all these possible modes of interaction remains the fact of the crossing as a structurally present ethical space: a space where people can enact a ritual of stopping and crossing, and through which society affIrms itself as a civilised (that is, ethical) one where dominant modes of inhabitance are invited to yield to marginal modes of inhabitance.’ (Hage 2000: 31)
What caused me some surprise in Port Melbourne was how many people, including people who do not own cars, spoke about how they tried to minimise the inconvenience the pedestrian crossing caused for cars as they made their way across Liardet Street. The inconvenience for cars was seen as part of the justification for placing a pedestrian crossing there; if it was difficult to turn right from Bay Street into Liardet Street then less cars would try to turn right there. However, when I heard people mention this justification, it was generally raised as a target of ridicule to show how out of touch the ‘experts’ are.
The City of Port Phillip places ‘walking’ at the top of its road user hierarchy. Are pedestrians who give way to drivers rejecting this hierarchy or reaffirming it through being the ones who grant drivers the opportunity to continue on their way?
Hage, G. (2000). “On the ethics of the pedestrian crossing: Or why ‘mutual obligation’ does not belong in the language of neo-liberal economics.” Menjin 4: 27-37.