You know how it feels when you're trying to cross the street and a driver comes through the intersection as if you’re not even there? Like he’s muscling through with that big box of metal as if to say, “Hey, get out of my way, you little flesh-and-blood weakling!”
Wouldn’t you just love to have a superhero sweep down, stand up to the jerk behind the wheel, and block the car so you could cross safely?
Enter Peatónito, the masked Mexican defender of pedestrians!
Peatónito is the alter ego of Jorge Cáñez, a 26-year-old political scientist in Mexico City who has also worked with the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
Cáñez created Peatónito to be a defender of the rights of the pedestrian in public space. He wears a cape and a mask in the tradition of Lucha Libre, the popular Mexican wrestling style. His mission, he says, is to protect the pedestrian’s much-assaulted right of way on the streets of Mexico City, where on average one pedestrian is killed by a motor vehicle every day and countless others are injured. His mask is black and white, the colors of a crosswalk.
"The idea of being the defender of pedestrians just came because nobody, not even the authorities, not even the citizens, made something to improve the situation of the pedestrians," he told me in an email (I've edited his words a bit for clarity). "I started off being part of some groups who paint pedestrian crossings in the streets of Mexico City. But I decided that we needed something more visible and friendly. As you know, Mexican wrestling (Lucha Libre) is very popular in Mexico, is part of our culture. That’s why I decided to rescue the values of Lucha Libre and take them to the streets...to reclaim justice for the king of the streets: the pedestrian."
I first heard about Peatónito during Social Media Week in New York, when he was mentioned by Natália Garcia, a Brazilian woman who was speaking on a panel about civic participation in urban development. Civic participation is what Peatónito is all about. "My biggest successes take place when the pedestrians feel safe crossing the streets and they thank me," he says. "Also when the motorists change their minds and understand that the pedestrians have the priority in the streets. Both things are important, because we are talking about a citizen social initiative, from citizen to citizen."
In character, Cáñez and his allies get out into the street and physically block cars that are infringing on pedestrian space, paint crosswalks where they are lacking, give speeches about pedestrian rights, and clear sidewalks of obstructions so that people on foot can pass through. The reception, he says, is good -- because he always stays positive. "The majority of people laugh and have fun with it," he says. "Even the motorists, because we need to be friendly with them. They are also citizens, and in some part of the day they are pedestrians also. There are a few motorists who take it personally and get mad, and my only weapon in that cases is to be more friendly and peaceful."
His efforts got him invited to speak at the Walk 21 conference in 2012 and has met with officials from Mexico City's department of public security to discuss the importance of putting pedestrians first in street design and traffic enforcement. He is hopeful about government efforts to improve infrastructure. At least, he says, they are now talking about giving pedestrians priority -- which would only make sense in a city where 80 percent of the population doesn't drive.
His may be a humorous approach, but the problem is deadly serious. Mexico City has some of the highest pedestrian fatality rates in the world, according to a 2003 report from the National Institute of Public Health of Mexico:
The overall crude mortality rate for pedestrian injuries in Mexico City was 7.14 per 100,000 …. A concentration of deaths was observed in 10 neighborhoods at specific types of street environments. The underlying factors included dangerous crossings and the absence or inadequacy of pedestrian bridges, as well as negative perceptions of road safety by pedestrians.
These are all issues that this masked defender stands ready to fight. "The motorists think that the city was made for them, but the reality is that we are all pedestrians, and the streets must be made for the people," he says. "Once the government has adopted the 'pedestrian is the king' in their speeches, I’m going to monitor and help them till the day there’s no pedestrian fatalities nor accidents, and also decent sidewalks and safety crossings in the streets. But even if the government calls me to collaborate, I will always be a non-partisan citizen hero of the public domain." He has registered Peatónito as Creative Commons, so that anyone who wants can become Peatónito.
"Everybody can wear the mask and fight in the streets for the pedestrian rights," Cáñez says. "As long as everything is peaceful and friendly."