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Middle of the road - Anne Zammit

Bollards mark the safer pedestrian route near a car park entrance in Sliema but most shoppers opt for middle of the road. Photos: Anne Zammit

Bollards mark the safer pedestrian route near a car park entrance in Sliema but most shoppers opt for middle of the road. Photos: Anne Zammit

Parents last week complained that a newly installed pavement that runs by the Kitchen Garden in Lija is too narrow to use safely with a pushchair. Here are some of the other reasons people street walk in Malta

Despite increasing traffic on the island, people choose to stroll down the middle of Maltese streets for a number of reasons (see list below).

In Texas, walking in the street when there is a perfectly good sidewalk is a “Class C misdemeanour”. It can land you with a fine and a night in jail.  

In some poorer areas of US cities, walking down the middle of the road is often interpreted as a “passive-aggressive” show of power and control over car-owners. Yet some pedestrians in crime-ridden areas say it makes them feel safer:

“You walk down the middle of the road sometimes because the space between the houses and cars are tighter, giving more hiding spaces for someone trying to rob you.”

The issue of people walking down the middle of the street has come up for discussion on the online Q&A site Quora, where an observer has put the behaviour down to a rebel streak tinged with jealousy:

“By walking in the street, they’re showing they are strong and powerful in several ways. The reason they feel the need to do this is probably because they have little other means to do it in their lives. They show strength and territorial dominance by making cars yield to them and show that they don’t have to obey the rules by walking on the sidewalk.”

In relatively low-crime Malta it is the dominance of vehicles which may well trigger this behaviour. But there are other reasons for taking to the asphalt. Here are 10 of them:

1. In narrow roads filled with parked cars, our miniscule pavements make it difficult to walk along trawling a shopping trolley or wielding a large bag without being pulled up short by a car mirror. A black eye could stem from a pavement encounter with a truck mirror if not on constant alert.

2. Hugging the pavement on a summer evening means feeling the heat of the sun, even after sundown, as it radiates off the walls of buildings. If few cars are about and they think they are able to leap out of the way in good time, some risk walking in the street where it may be possible to catch a little breeze.

3. There are stretches of pavement which tend to be a convenient no-man’s land for irresponsible pet owners who abscond, after their pet’s deed is done, without cleaning up after the dog. Walls around schools and other public buildings are doused in doggy urine. The stench increases as summer temperatures rise without a drop of rain to wash pavements clean.

4. Destabilisation of communities where established norms of when and where to put out rubbish bags has come about with the influx of short-stay outsiders who show little respect for the neighbourhood. The risk of tripping over these bags, oozing garbage juice onto the pavement at all hours of day and night, entices one to risk dodging passing cars in the street as an alternative. You are less likely to meet a cockroach in the middle of the road as they are all feasting on the offerings from torn garbage bags at the roadside.

Like Christopher Robin, watch out for bears and never step on the cracks

5. Air-conditioning drains spit drops of water onto the pates of passing pedestrians on the pavements below. Looking up, one may try to catch a glimpse of the vile sociopath or wicked child who spat on them, only to spot a green mossy patch below a dripping plastic pipe. If the cleaning lady has been let loose, a torrent of foul soapy water may suddenly emanate from an upper balcony drainpipe, onto anyone unfortunate enough to be treading the pavement below.

6. Then there is the unintentional ambush. Striding along the narrow pavement you suddenly collide with another being who has just rushed out of their little wooden door, coming face to face with you – the offender. Yes, you have shunned the ancient practice of sticking to the street in such a tightly packed village context. You have more or less invaded their territory which may explain their sullen countenance.

7. Sadly this one is disappearing – but at a certain hour, when the bread van is due on its rounds, you could walk smack into a dangling basket, let down on a rope from a gallerija by some wizened denizen. This useful practice, once commonplace, has faded. Gone are the days when you could safely leave a few cents in an unattended basket to pay the bread man. Too many light-fingered characters wandering the streets – and the price of bread is on the up.

A cracked inspection chamber slab poses a crippling danger on a St Julian’s pavement.A cracked inspection chamber slab poses a crippling danger on a St Julian’s pavement.

8. Strolling down the middle of a quiet street (safest when moving against very occasional one-way traffic) also gives a better aspect from which to admire what is left of our built heritage. Drivers hardly ever notice it as they are too busy watching out for jay-walkers.

9. Street walking allows for eye contact so that you can meet and greet people without invading their body space. If someone you would rather avoid is approaching it permits subtle averting of the gaze at a respectable distance

10. Probably the most obvious reason for people avoiding pavements is the uneven surface, often slippery depending on the type of cement used for patching. The risk of breaking a limb as your foot goes through a failing inspection chamber slab is huge. Like Christopher Robin, watch out for bears and never step on the cracks.

During the local festa, when streets are closed for processions and band marches, pedestrians delight in claiming back the streets, if only for a brief respite.

You might be forced to step (carefully) off the pavement and cross to the sunny side of the street as an approaching 100-metre crocodile of students devours a 30cm-wide pavement.

By day, the streets are owned by drivers who will horn-blast you out of the way, or “graze your hip” at zebra crossings. Come evening and the side streets are quieter. Then, in virtually empty roads, off the main arteries, groups of people can be seen walking three or four abreast down the middle of the road.

Perhaps the best take on the subject is from a US-based senior planner, Dillon Sussman, writing for the Massachusetts Healthy Ageing Collaborative (Walking in the middle of the street – Community Design and Healthy Ageing)

“The built environment matters, but so does the culture of a place. In my neighbourhood people walk in the street and drivers have come to expect that… pedestrians rule the streets and once you have seen that vision, you know you need to drive slower.”  

Those who choose to walk in the road are prone to shouts of “bankina!” from frustrated drivers.Those who choose to walk in the road are prone to shouts of “bankina!” from frustrated drivers.

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