TCS interviews Lars Christiansen, Urban Sociologist and Civic Engagement Pioneer

[Augsburg professors Lars Christiansen and Nancy Fisher in a pop-up parklet during an event in Frogtown last summer.]

I'm a big fan of Augsburg professor Lars Christiansen. Ever since we first met at the Birchwood café to talk social theory and bicycling in the Twin Cities, I've been meeting up with Lars every few months to see what's new. He always has something to say.

In fact, turning to Christiansen when I need to talk about an interesting problem has become one of my guilty pleasures. Last month when I was writing my Cityscape column for Minnpost about Saint Paul's "crosswalk stings" and the "Stop 4 Me" campaign, Lars and I sat down at his local Groundswell Coffee on Hamline Avenue, to discuss the pros, cons, and limits of crosswalk enforcement in cities like Saint Paul.

Here's the conversation. Enjoy!


[Just after lunchtime in a busy hip café in a quiet neighborhood. LARS CHRISTIANSEN is seated at the table closest to the kitchen, relaxed and intense at the same time, ending a conversation and bidding goodbye to a LOCAL MAN. A minute later, TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS walks up and sits down, getting comfortable in his chair.]

Twin City Sidewalks (TCS) [quietly, waiting for coffee]: Tell me about the crosswalk stings.

Lars Christiansen (LC) [excited, in a steady voice]: Well, they’re useful to start a public conversation, but they have limits as a means of behavior change.

[TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS scratches his chin, knowingly.]

LC: Thinking about what compels driver behavior, the stuff on the transformation of the uses of the street and jaywalking. All of that history is extremely helpful to understand why today’s drivers would be so upset. Why it feels like such an imposition, why the law seems not to be right that, as as soon as a pedestrian steps foot in the street, everybody is to come to a stop.

Take crossing the street in Hanoi, Vietnam. What I’ve heard is how all these different uses are converging at intersections, and as a pedestrian, you just go. If you maintain a pace, people will just move around you. The last thing you do is stop anywhere because then everybody can’t maneuver. It’s acculturated, like any norm, unwritten behavioral habits that people just sort of figure out from the way in which we organize our movement on streets. It looks very chaotic and dangerous, but if you grow up in that culture, you just know how to walk

I’m not saying it’s necessarily pleasant, but it seems to work.

[A street in Copenhagen near the train station.]
TCS: Two years ago, I was traveling in Scandinavia, and wound up in Copenhagen. I remember getting off the train and went to nearest café. I sat for hour watching the intersection in front of the table, where there were no signals at all and you had bikes, walkers, and cars all going through it. And it worked perfectly. I really sat and just stared, watching this corner. It was really amazing.

LC: There's an understanding that forms. My friend Drew tells a story about how people in Germany reacted once to a car that car made this maneuver near a bike lane, and all the pedestrians and bicyclists nearby just went and shouted about this. This driver had made a maneuver that would be completely normal here in the US, taking a right turn and, in order to do so, he had to cross the bike lane. This person thought this bicyclist was well out of his way, and maybe they were by US standards. But not by German standards.

So part of the issue here is how do we shift the culture? And what is the role of these stings in inching that cultural shift forward?

My fear about the stings is that we over-rely on them. We over-rely on enforcement as the solution to the problem.

TCS: OK, but what are the alternatives?

LC: It gets to that question of what compels driver behavior.

There are many ways into that, just to keep my train of thought. Firstly, it’s useful for people to understand that there was a concerted effort from 1915 to 1935 to wrest the street from pedestrians. The idea of the street, and controlling pedestrian movement, the very notion of of crosswalks, the notion of jaywalking and all of that, they were invented as a means to reorder who was prioritized as the primary mover on the street.

So that’s the political process. It’s a contested process. We started with the idea that automobiles were this menace, this dangerous intrusion on our streets. But now the pedestrian is the menace and this dangerous intrusion on the street. That’s a historical unfolding that hardly anyone is familiar with.

Part of the cultural issue is the ignorance of that process of change, and the assumption that what we have now is simply the natural order of things, and that it has always been this way. That’s one aspect of this.

Maybe that history finds its place in driver education, or in history education. I think any time you open up a black box, good things happen.

TCS [chuckling]:  Lars, that’s what Pandora said too.

LC [leans forward, half-smiling]: But it seems to be a very effective way to get people to start looking differently about things, to suggest that it hasn’t always been this way.

But where I really want to go with this, this is where I’m foreshadowing what i’m writing about, is the relationship of the body to technology.

[YOUNG CAFE WORKER approaches holding a mug of coffee on a tray, and sets it down in front of TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS.]

Young Café Worker [apologetic]: I'm so sorry about the delay. Would you like anything from our bakery? On the house.

TCS [hesitantly]: Um. Sure. How about one of those scones or something?

YCW: Right away. Sorry about that.

[The YOUNG CAFE WORKER turns and walks away.]

TCS [grinning]: No problem

TCS [turns, sips coffee]: Score!

LC [smiling, then serious]: The basic concept is the notion of the body schema. Maybe you and I have already had conversations about this, so forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but the notion here is that our bodies don’t end at our skin. Our bodies end where boundaries of our bodies end through the various technologies that we engage with: our clothing, our glasses, our bicycles, our shoes, our cars.

So the way in which we maneuver in a car, of course the car becomes our body, and we’re in movement together as a group. It’s a situation, it’s not an individual thing.

So when the sting pulls somebody over, I looked at that list of excuses given that the Saint Paul Police Department noted on the Facebook page that you linked to. People are saying, “well I didn’t want to stop for people because there were people behind me,” or that “by stopping I’d be putting myself in danger or others in danger with my vehicle.”

These are very reasonable things to say, feelings to have have, conclusions to draw! One does feel the heat of the other cars around you as you’re moving, so to do something unusual, it’s completely understandable why it’s very common for the drivers to do that.

And that the police consider it an excuse is where I see a problem. It’s not that simple, it’s not a matter or illegal or criminal individual behavior. This isn’t about an individual flouting the law. It’s a very real feeling, to feel that sense of pressure from motorists who are around you. It’s why we have rearview mirrors. It matters.

TCS: Do you ever do this? I don’t know if you drive much, but if you look up in the rear-view mirror and someone’s tailgating you or something, one of the things I like to do is just flip the thing and ignore all that completely. I don’t care who is behind me any more, and I just drive.

When I used to have a car, I’d sometimes put in a tape of ocean sounds. I once did that for a month, did all my driving to the sounds of the sea, and that’s one of the exercises you can use to take yourself out of that technological peer pressure. Because you do feel it!

LC: Absolutely, and that feeling is real. And similarly if you’re behind somebody and the come to a stop or doing something that seems out of the ordinary, you feel the anger. You’re expressing the heat, and this explains why if people, if you’re in a two-lane situation, they’ll do the whip-around and it ends tragically.

TCS: Does that move have a name? It should have a name. How about the “two lane trap”?

LC: There should be a name. But what’s happening in that situation is that its not become a norm for the driver behind to understand that the driver in front may be stopping for a pedestrian. It doesn’t even occur to them. It just seems like an obstruction because it’s not part of our culture, it’s not part of our discussion or our training. It’s  not part of the recognition of pedestrians as users of the street, even at crosswalks, especially at unmarked crosswalks. So it doesn’t even occur to that driver that, “oh, they’re coming to a stop, that means pedestrians.” It doesn’t even appear and so you get the whip-around.

[The crosswalk at Kellogg and Mulberry where a woman was killed crossing the street earlier this year.]

TCS: OK I like that name.

LC: Which again, leads to death. And then it’s all this ambiguity. So the pedestrian goes, then what? They have to make sure is that second lane is really clear. We deal with this all the time.

The stings will always produce about 480 violations and 88 citations or something, until there’s a really a cultural change. And that will take a lot of time to make.

[Quietly, the YOUNG CAFE WORKER puts a muffin down on the table. TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS takes a bite.]

LC: This isn’t about excuses of drivers, it’s about understanding driver behavior and what compels driver behavior. And this idea that there’s this shared responsibility is a misunderstanding of the problem. What we have is motordom, which is the concept that Norton uses throughout his book, the establishment of motordom, the privileging of motor vehicle traffic as the highest priority mover and it's everywhere. One place where I often test it is at risk of martyrdom

TCS: Jeez, we've got motordom versus martrydom here...

[Franklin Avenue.]
LC: OK, it's on 24th and Franklin where a Café Mon Petit Cheri is located. It's it’s a good breakfast before Augsburg, and if you just sit there and watch people try to cross the street, it's just extraordinary. Sometimes I have decided to assert my pedestrian right to just step foot and street to walk across, and drivers will...  If you want to make a driver really angry just do that.

I’ve had drivers speed up in anger because I started to assert pedestrian space there. And it being completely legal, but it's this sensation of the movement. It's the way our bodies relate to the car. It’s the positioning of each person within a situation that is the issue. It's not criminality, it's not individual. Remember these are people who become pedestrians once they step out of the car.

TCS: But I'm guilty also!

LC: Everybody is. How can you not be? If you put all of the pedestrian advocates in cars and ask them to drive without them knowing, I bet the rate of violation would be nearly the same. Because we’re flowing. We’re not immune to the flow. We’re not immune to the way our bodies interact with the machine.
TCS: This is something that I think a lot about, too. One of the places where I've seen that culture shift and those dynamics change, I still remember it. I was walking down Washington avenue by Moos tower and watching…

[LARS CHRISTIANSEN scratches his head, confusedly.] 

[Washington Avenue at the University of Minnesota.]
TCS: It’s the big Brutalist building on the corner the tall concrete one… Harvard ave and Washington... the very large 15 story monolith. East bank.

Anyway, I just watched these students and traffic signals are all messed up there and people don’t pay much attention to them. They look for trains, but the way the intersection is designed now, the dynamics are totally shifted so that drivers are the ones watching constantly and students are the ones walking right out.

And that’s fine. Nobody gets hurt, and its amazing to witness what you think is a totally alien culture in the Twin Cities actually existing a mile away.

LC: And maybe there, it seems the solution has to do with such a radical transformation of the space and how its designed. The situation of the University here, and the intense density of foot traffic that it’s just impossible to ignore,

TCS [finishing his coffee]: Motordom is dead there.

LC: And the question is how do you kill motordom are a norm within the city everywhere? Because otherwise this is really you don’t achieve a paradigm shift, you don’t get anywhere close to what sometimes you see in California, where drivers will get angry with pedestrians in CA Berkeley and Oakland and...

TCS: My friend Andy Singer was telling me about Berkeley once, and he said the same thing.

LC: They’ll get angry if pedestrians don’t act definite in their motion.

I get frustrated when I see pedestrians in the Twin Cities, and this is an unreasonable frustration that I have, but I get frustrated when there’s all this hesitation, when somebody just waits and waits and never asserts. And I want more courage on the part of pedestrians.

But what’s unreasonable about that is that its you’re basically asking people to be martyrs for a movement, and that’s unreasonable to expect of most people. I guess for me personally an especially on the bike, I’ve decided that if I die on a bike as a result of motordom this is… this is OK.

TCS [gasps]: Don't do it, Lars!

LC: I won’t do it intentionally. I’m just saying that I refuse to give in to motordom. I won’t give in to the point where I’m armoring myself. I don’t want to. It may lead to an injury when I’m walking crossing Franklin.

Nancy gets really upset with me and I'm just, we've got to start being more assertive. But there’s a risk there for the very reasons we’ve already articulated, because it's already encoded in our behavior, in the way our bodies relate to the machine, and the way our machines relate in a group, and our ignorance of the pedestrians as a legitimate user of the space is an historical achievement, a problematic achievement. All of those things are working against the pedestrian in that space.

But without the assertion these stings are essentially law enforcement aided assertions and they’ll work temporarily what’s promising about the stings is that it’s more than that.

TCS: They're doing it all year long.

LC: And in different places and its going to continue the conversation. I don’t begrudge the outrageous things people say in the meetings. They’re completely predictable. They’ll say what they do, and especially in a culture where so many of us are shitted on economically and politically. Motor privilege is one of the few privileges that’s sort of democratically shared.

TCS: I think about that too. I've been wanting to write a blogpost about equal opportunity and the automobile. About how when you’re riding a bike around and some car buzzes you, how there are no conclusions you can draw about what kind of car it is what kind of person’s driving it. sometimes I look in, and it doesn’t matter. It could be a pedestrian advocate on their way to a meeting or it could be someone who doesn’t’ speak any English.

LC: Rich or poor.

TCS: Rich or poor, yes. The technology trumps all of that. And that's why it's so powerful. It goes beyond normal identity.

[2011 Charles Avenue Friendly Streets event that Christiansen helped organize.]
LC: It is very interesting and this idea that is its a privilege that’s democratically shared is especially potent in a context where otherwise people feel dis-empowered the person who is working 2-3 jobs and or just encounters a bicyclist that is their view an obstruction, that the idea that there’s a movement to try to challenge motordom, it will feel like class. It’ll feel loaded with a class element to it. It’ll feel privileged, especially around bicyclists, not so much for pedestrians. But the idea of privilege between bicyclists against cars, it's sort of a way that working class folks are asserting a power.

TCS [making air quotes]: The literature on this is interesting, especially for migrant groups or undocumented workers, you have this culture of "pimping out your car." It relates for folks who don't necessarily have other kinds of property with which to express themselves, or to take pride in.

LC: Absolutely. Its more about this being one of the objects, it’s a status object. Still, it's almost a nefarious switch that’s happening. So you create an object whether it’s the single-family home or the automobile, and associate all kinds of status with them. And you really make it a scarcity that only certain people can have access to. White suburbia is one example, car ownership, TV ownership originally and so forth.

But as soon as it becomes democratized, there's a shift, and then it's cars are bad, cars that were only accessible to certain to people. It’s a terrible thing that we’ve revered cars for so long and now were starting to challenge cars, and its understandable why communities who were excluded from the achievement of various status acquisition is like F.U., you’re changing the rules now. Now I’m supposed to hate my car? It's a weird thing that consumption does to us and how we treat each other.

[A long pause opens up between them.]

TCS: So, to get back to the original question, do you think stings are helpful?

LC: Yes, it's going to raise the conversation. Many people now are saying, well that’s a dangerous law, but at least we know there’s the law. But the law has never been a great means of enforcing behavior change to me laws are almost always reactionary to behavior and really what we need is multi-pronged approach.

I want it to be education. I want it to be infrastructural. But the one thing that’s not in the conversation at all is the body-technology relationship. That’s a real leap for people to make, although it's so intuitively felt that it would be... One would think it would be easy, but we’re so trapped in the notion of individual decision making.

[After a pause, TWIN CITY SIDEWALKS and LARS CHRISTIANSEN stare off through the café window. A car passes by. The wind blows through the still-bare tree branches. A horn honks in the distance.]


Bonus: There's a crosswalk safety "Stop 4 Me" event this very afternoon at Kellogg Bouelvard by the History Center. Council Member Rebecca Noecker will be there, along with police and with city pedestrian advocates.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a good Joe Soucheray quote that I think captures some of the class perceptions that people have of cyclists, these days. I'm paraphrashing, but it was something about seeing a bicyclist and that used to mean some poor guy who got one too many DUIs, but now it's different.

It's interesting the way that class contributes to the bike debate. On the one hand, it's not even questionable whether bike ownership or car ownership is more expensive, bikes (and transit and walking, for that matter) are way cheaper. Pick up and old one for like $175 vs. a used car for $2k not to mention insurance and gas expenses (and that would be on the cheap end of the spectrum). But on the other hand, it can be impractical to commute to work on a bicycle if you don't have a white collar job. The service industry is a bit different, but even then you'll probably have to work multiple jobs, sometimes at odd hours, when you feel unsafe being exposed and on a bicycle, and what are the chances that they're both within 4 miles of your residence and eachother.

I think a lot of this has to do with the numbers of cyclists on the road, too, and I suppose the popularity of living in relatively bikeable areas. When I started biking, back in high school (graduated in 2010, so I guess it wasn't that long ago, really), it never really occured to be that biking was a way in which the wealthy were imposing upon the lifestyles of the poor. If anything it was an equity issue. You know, making the streets safe for people who couldn't afford a car. But back then it seemed like most people who could afford to were living in the 'burbs and had car oriented lifestyles. Fast forward to 2016, and there's lots of upscale new constructions in dense urban areas and lots of young professionals moving in, and lots more cyclists on the road, and they're probably not from the ranks of the working poor, for the most part.

I guess I don't really have much of a point here, but its an interesting observation that seems mildly related to the topic at hand.