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Monday, August 10, 2015

Linear Paths: Go or Stop?


A User of Linear Paths

I am a user of linear paths. In recent years I've been on a sidewalk, bike path, public staircase, tunnel or trail nearly every day. On perhaps half of those days I've been on a road, too. During most of my life, those linear paths were designed and used for motion: walking (people, people walking dogs, people walking llamas...), running (people, people running with strollers...), cycling, scootering, rollerblading and driving. Now, in 2015, I'm seeing something I rarely saw in the past on these routes: I see people standing still, thumbing their mobile devices' keyboards.

Pre-Mobile Device Era

Try to recall or imagine a time when the only mobile device most people carried was a watch. You'd head out the door to walk to the bus stop or a friend's house or the library. The reasons you might stop along the way included smelling the roses, looking into a store window or chatting with a neighbor who was also walking or in their yard. My memory of these times includes lots of walking and not much stopping.

The Audio Device Era

By Der gelehrte hermes (Own work)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The first mobile device (beyond a watch) I had was a cassette player that had a belt clip. If memory serves, my black and white plastic player was a knockoff of the first Walkman. I recall seeing lots of the yellow "sport" version on runners and walkers in the 1990s. Those mobile cassette players evolved into DVD players and ultimately to MP3 players. I still use my second generation iPod shuffle daily around the house, when walking and on solo training runs.

Mobile phones fit into this category, too. While the joke is that many people cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, everyone seems to be able to walk and talk on their mobile phone at the same time.

None of these devices, best I can tell, encourages stopping along the route. If anything, they help to keep individuals moving! Interestingly, due to safety issues, many running events discourage or ban them.

The Mobile Computer Era

I'm pleased to report that I can't recall a single time when I've seen anyone walking while using a luggable, a laptop or even a tablet computer. Perhaps it's because their form factors are not conducive to interaction while standing, let alone walking. What I do see are individuals using mobile phones as communication devices, just not voice communication devices. That is, people are texting, sending e-mail and creating content to share on these devices. Sadly, unlike talking on the phone, which can be done while in motion, these activities seem to require the communicator to come to a complete stop on the sidewalk or stairs or bike path.

In the last few years I've seen these linear paths evolve from places where nearly everyone is in motion to places where some percentage of users are are stopped in random locations. The old fashioned obstacle of two or three neighbors (and perhaps their dogs) chatting on my local bike path evolved into individuals, in work or running clothes, stopped and typing. Individuals stop on the landings and stairs at my gym doing the same thing. This past winter I had to come to a screeching halt as the women in front of me at the end of a 50k trail race stopped in the middle of the trail to take a selfie! The addition of finger focused communications, picture taking, and content creation have turned these linear paths from being travel lanes to being rest stops.

Change is in the Air

Courtesy State of Utah
Society, myself included, is still adjusting to the changing uses of our linear paths. Where I live individuals are still learning to take a step or two off the bike path to compose a message or to summit a landing while climbing stairs to check their mail. Cyclists are still learning that when they need a breather, it's safer and courteous to other users, to move themselves and their bikes off the bike path and let traffic flow. If we can't adjust, perhaps we'll need "texting areas" along our indoor and outdoor linear paths.

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