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first person

Wenting Li

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For the past 30 years I have been an avid walker. In other words, for the past thirty years I’ve been shouldered into shrubbery, pushed off of curbs, pressed into fences and edged into mud puddles.

Worst of all is when the violator – the person hip checking me onto someone’s front lawn – would bump me and I was the one who mumbled “Sorry!” as if it were my fault that this wayward pedestrian considered walking a full-contact sport.

Now I have decided to take up my rightful space on the sidewalk.

I don’t hog it like the women pushing parallel strollers, so engrossed in their conversation and the priority of their children’s transportation that they force pedestrians into the petunias. Or like the line of shoulder-to-shoulder adolescents who occupy the span of the sidewalk like the Toronto Argos’ defensive line until they spill onto the road, their loud shouts and guffaws competing with the honk of car horns warning them off the street.

Following the “rules of the road” of urban strolling, I now walk solely on the right-hand side of any pathway. I expect those approaching me to adhere to the same principle.

This seems an underwhelming achievement – it is something most people have done since grade school, when children trailed behind adults like goslings following a mother goose, and a parent chided: “Move over – you’re blocking the whole sidewalk!”

It wasn’t a moment of epiphany that led to me changing my passive ways – my stammered apologies or defensive side-stepping. Over time, a dawning realization grew that I could, and would, assume my democratically deserved sidewalk domain. I had the right to half of the real estate on any given path – be it gravel, dirt or concrete. As the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed in The Social Contract, in an egalitarian society, people forfeit the same number of rights and impose the same duties on all.

It’s not that difficult a principle to understand. We drive on the right side of the road, ascend stairs and escalators on the right side. Walking on the right side of the sidewalk is the logical corollary rule. Doing so establishes structure for those afoot, maintains the peace and promotes a cultural norm of civility. When the descendants of Emily Post wrote their famous book on manners titled Emily Post’s Etiquette, they asserted that “Consideration for the rights and feelings of others is not merely a rule for behavior in public but the very foundation upon which social life is built.”

I’ve been treading my 50 per cent allotment of pavement for a while. Like an Olympic relay runner that must stay inside her track lane or be disqualified, I judiciously stay to my side of the concrete rectangle. Shoulders held back, eyes aimed straight ahead, I walk without hesitation or apology. I am no longer wary of approaching teenagers, clusters of friends or tour groups. Those carrying coffee, I fear not.

I am a constant. A north star. As people approach, I chug along like a self-driving car that maintains speed, direction and momentum. I do not step aside for the phone-in-hand texters weaving back and forth across the asphalt, occasionally stopping dead. Like a field goal kicker keeping the posts in his line of sight, I head toward my destination; my feet are steady, my determination is unwavering.

As I near, I do not make eye contact with oncoming pedestrians. There is now no personal connection to make them think I see them, that I will make way, give way, move over or concede my ground. No longer appearing malleable or accommodating, I cannot be pushed aside. I am a person with purpose; the right side of the sidewalk is my tread space, my temporary inheritance, my allotted urban property.

If someone wanders across the invisible line that separates the two-way pedestrian traffic, I may stop, but I will not move aside. If this means a few bumps, so be it. If we collide or brush shoulders, I will pause for him to apologize. I will give him an opportunity to recognize his transgression and take responsibility for his crass manners, self-absorption or distraction. If nothing happens, I will brush the offender aside, steer him gently back into his lane and out of mine and continue onward, a soldier undeterred by the minor scuffles in the ongoing war for public decorum.

The unspoken contract of all city dwellers is that we must share communal space agreeably and equitably in order to ensure that citizens reach their destinations expediently and safely. The sidewalk must be divided in a way that keeps urbanites moving to prevent the bottlenecking abhorred by pedestrians, bicyclists and motorists alike. In her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban planner Jane Jacobs says that circulation is the main purpose of sidewalks. They are intended and designed to be an efficient way to get people around on foot. And the busier the sidewalk, the safer the neighbourhood tends to be: An informal neighbourhood watch evolves as more people stroll and business owners keep an eye out for new customers.

I now take up my rightful space on a pathway. Not because this is a feminist issue, which maybe it is (women tend to be smaller and more polite than men, so they probably spend more time entangled in rose bushes), but because it is a community issue – a point of urban politesse. All I ask is that my fellow path walkers steer to the right to facilitate quick and safe foot traffic, and take their pedestrian responsibilities seriously.

If you see me walking, feel free to utter a polite greeting. You will recognize me by the determined line of my mouth and the football helmet on my head.

Dianne Scott lives in Toronto.