You Ought To Get Out More

‘You Ought To Get Out More’

This is one of the more quotable expressions along with ‘get a life’ and ‘move along mate’: comments that are made by disagreeable car owners returning to their cars as I face up to them about their parking habits.  I am sitting in my power chair, unable to move forward, blocked by a ‘pavement parker.’  On occasion, I am also confronted with their body language which suggests that I have come close to a good ‘sorting out’ but for their restraint!  I’m made to feel that on this occasion I’m lucky to be in a wheelchair, because otherwise they would put me in one.

Car blocking pavementWhat does it mean to be blocked by unthinking pavement parkers?  For me it means a choice between turning back or an unwelcome confrontation (following their return).  I say unwelcome because these confrontations leave me exhausted – unable to fight my own corner – hoping that someone else will be able to come to my rescue.  Such encounters mark the start of my day, my first meeting with the people of Prestwich.  I know this is atypical: after all, the people of my village are much better than this.

Of course, these particular miscreants try to rationalise their misdeeds.  After all, ‘haven’t they left enough space?  Can I not try a bit harder to get through?  Am I not just one of those cranks in a wheelchair that is sponging off the state? Can’t they just wait a minute while they visit the bank?

‘Squeezing through’ is often not possible when you’re in a power chair.  It’s even more difficult when you’re responsible for getting your child to school.  The narrow gap that is left is always on a camber (the greatest dread for wheelchair users), you always seem to be forced to drive over dog muck and invariably it’s raining so you are drenched by leaky gutters overhead.  This is the case with one pavement ‘black-spot’ that awaits me every day.  Unless you drive a wheelchair yourself it is impossible to understand the physical challenges involves with manoeuvring through gaps.

This particular passageway black-spot also has double yellow lines… I say passageway or rat-run because that is what it has become. In fact, it is my only route into the village, just as it is for many other pedestrians, both young and old.  But I’m not a traffic warden or a law enforcer.  Moreover, I don’t think that putting half of the car on the pavement reduces the crime of parking on double yellow lines.

Sometimes, well-meaning members of the pedestrian public try to suggest to me an alternative route, in an attempt to avoid confrontation with the car owner.  However, I’m not mentally incapacitated or inclined to have psychotic outbursts – I am just physically disabled (and a little bit despairing).  I prefer to have independence in this regard.  My usual expression is

‘could you move your car please…’

Which is about as polite as I can get.  The ‘please’ causes me angst.

Today a neighbour was there to intervene, seeing me stuck and unable to communicate with the car occupant who was resigned to ignoring me. My neighbour had a more submissive turn of phrase

‘… Would you be so kind as to move your car because my neighbour in the power chair cannot get through’.

Their intervention had the desired effect, or did it?  It left the car driver feeling that they had done a good turn – that in fact I owed them a favour.  It also allowed them to go away thinking that they might do the same tomorrow unless they were feeling particularly benevolent.  The neighbour had unwittingly suggested that their action was solely in my interest.  Are there not other people (perhaps too frightened to say) that are obstructed in the same way?  As for me, it made me feel pathetic and disempowered.

IMG0071A_25Let’s be honest, some pavement parkers are able to show a Blue Badge.  Indeed, a few of them have felt at ease about parking their car on the pavements and walking away, even when it was apparent that they were obstructing a ‘fellow’ disabled person.  I have doubts whether a truly disabled person would do this. I know ‘I should get out more’ but I can’t help quoting a government guidance note on the subject!

Here is a partial list of places where you must not park, even if you have a Blue Badge.

  • “where it would hold up traffic, such as in narrow stretches of road or blocking vehicle entrances;
  • where emergency vehicles stop or go in and out, such as hospital entrances;
  • where the kerb has been lowered or the road raised to help wheelchair users; and
  • on a pavement, unless signs permit it.”

Okay that’s the boring bit. The reality is that nobody is prepared to enforce laws.  The police are not interested. After all, they have much more interesting things to do.  This is too demeaning.  As for traffic wardens, they are too scarce and the gamble of illegal parking invariably pays off.  So I’m not trying to appeal to what is right or wrong in the eyes of the law.  I’m trying to appeal to common humanity – a trait which we all possess.

Pavements are for pedestrians. But we are all pedestrians. We may be car owners at some time, but we all want the freedom to be able to walk out of our house and perhaps become part of the community. It’s true that some people are more dependent on pavements than others. The mother with the buggy.  The elderly person with the walking stick seeking to escape confinement.  The child that wants to walk safely in their exploration of the world.  In reality though, we will all at some point in our life have to be (or may want to be even) foot soldiers.  So it’s not a question of ‘us and them’ but rather ‘us and us’.

Maybe I’m a hypocrite? After all, had it not been for the unfortunate arrival of my illness, I might blithely have continued as a cocooned driver myself: unaware of how my habits might impact on other people. Unaware that by coming out into the street, I might get to know the neighbours and overcome the barriers that are making us all so isolated.

What a revelation street life has become to me. People that I would never have known have become my closest friends just through the serendipity of street life.  But its sustenance depends upon pavements continuing to serve their function as pedestrian routes.

Cars are becoming more commonplace. We now have become two or even three car households. Sometimes this reflects the reality of modern life with an increased dependence on two family incomes. The total car lengths surpass the width of our house.  Inevitably, car overcrowding happens.  Residential streets, it is argued, cannot accommodate parking on both sides unless pavement parking occurs on one side or the other.  Otherwise, the worst of all eventualities, the clipping of a wing mirror, is the inevitable consequence.  Perhaps worse things can happen? Perhaps we have all become too precious about our cars. What about the freedom of our children?  (And there I am not referring to the protection of our young ones in a metallic box).

4585123662_2f7bb21a91_zYou can’t help being reminded of the boiled frog anecdote. This tells us that if a frog is placed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it is placed in cold water that is slowly heated, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. Are we in danger of doing exactly the same thing with our local environment: where streets simply become roads?

Pavement blocking is not a minor inconvenience. It is a devastating ‘showstopper’ that is continually isolating the young and old alike.  People are choosing to become housebound rather than confront the tyrannies of public conflict.  ‘Might is right’ has become the mantra of many car owners who themselves have lost sight of street life and its many possibilities.

By accepting pavements as ‘rat runs’ we are giving up on the many possibilities for which they were first envisaged.  It is not just about the functional role of ‘getting through’.  It is about our sense of belonging, of pottering along tree-lined vistas, of rediscovering pride in our community. All of these things become as important as simply getting from A to B.  Even people in wheelchairs seek to rediscover these possibilities if they are allowed.


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