Walking the walk (on TikTok)
Longtime artist and advocate for pedestrian-friendly communities hits his stride with the upstart social-media platform.
Jonathon Stalls remembers well the day when a young person suggested he use a new social-media platform, TikTok, to advocate for pedestrian-friendly communities.
“I’m in my late 30s – there’s no way. I can barely handle Instagram,” Stalls, 39, recalled thinking. “I didn’t even know what TikTok meant.”
But Stalls’ hesitancy toward the fast-growing video-sharing app quickly turned into a successful way to reach new, younger audiences that have been flocking to the wildly popular platform in droves. Stalls now uses his TikTok account, @pedestriandignity, to bring attention to people who have no choice but to “walk, roll or use the bus” as their primary form of transportation.
It’s a cause that Stalls has been passionate about for years.
After walking 3,000 miles across the country in 2010, the graduate of Metropolitan State University of Denver saw firsthand the lack of infrastructure that made it difficult and dangerous for people traveling on foot or by wheelchair.
That awareness-raising trek attracted traditional-media coverage in the New York Times and elsewhere. Stalls said he witnessed “systemic harm in how neighborhoods and streets were built” and vowed to build a “more human and connected world through walking.”
But as his advocacy has grown and evolved, so has Stalls’ communication strategy. He has shifted from legacy news media and older social-media platforms to TikTok, which allows users to share short-form videos on any subject.
Stalls began dabbling with the platform this past June to document issues related to pedestrian equity, safety and accessibility. He found that the videos he posted helped him better connect with diverse groups all over the country – more than 75,000 people follow his account, which has drawn 1 million likes.
“I would have never imagined that I’d be using a tool like TikTok, but I found such a great stride with it,” Stalls said of the platform. He posts regularly on TikTok to bring attention to Denver’s poor sidewalk infrastructure and areas that need attention for those who walk or roll to get around.
Stalls’ videos document inadequate sidewalk and mobility infrastructure and the challenges posed to those who need to walk or use a wheelchair to get from one place to another. He encourages his followers to get involved locally by sharing their own stories and advocating for safer streets. For example, in Denver, he encourages viewers to join the Denver Deserves Sidewalks campaign with Denver Streets Partnership.
“I just got off the bus from Colfax and Sheridan, and I’m heading to the grocery store two blocks away,” Stalls told his followers in one recent video. “I just crossed the street. There’s a bus stop with the shelter, new development, nice new flat sidewalk, but it doesn’t matter because it doesn’t lead anywhere. We … get thrown off a cliff.”
@pedestriandignity …no one should EVER have to go through this to get to grocery store or to get home #pedestriandignity #urbanplanning #publichealth #equity original sound – pedestriandignity
Social-media experts say TikTok is filling the spot that Instagram did 10 years ago as it sees exponential growth. Launched just four years ago, TikTok reported more than 1 billion active global users last month, compared with 700 million in 2020.
It has also drawn criticism over privacy concerns, its impact on children and its ties to China. Executives for TikTok and other social-media platforms recently faced questions from lawmakers critical of tech-industry practices.
But the platform has proved effective in helping issues gain traction and attention in ways they couldn’t before, said Samuel Jay, Ph.D., an MSU Denver Communications professor who studies social-media trends.
“As soon as somebody realizes that a platform can be used for something other than social networking – for advocacy, for political advancement or political communication, for marketing, for all these things – then that slowly just bleeds into the other uses. It’s kind of inevitable,” Jay said.
Stalls, who studied Design and Entrepreneurship as a part of the Individualized Degree Program at MSU Denver, was invited to the platform by someone he met on one of his dignity-themed walks. Initially hesitant, Stalls quickly discovered how powerful the platform was in not only giving voice to historically marginalized groups but in connecting with policy influencers and systemic-level decision-makers.
@pedestriandignity …space, care, and protection #pedestriandignity #pedestrian #urbanplanning #publichealth #bouldercolorado original sound – pedestriandignity
Stalls and Jay said local engagement is easier on a platform such as TikTok versus Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. Unlike older platforms, TikTok has a strong focus on localized content and trends through the use of hashtags and local contests and challenges.
It also “invites the creator to be raw and authentic, rather than overly scripted,” Stalls added. “I think that piece mixed with advocacy and education is refreshing for a lot of people, to just be woven into learning new things and connecting to new things without all the filters.”
To learn more about Stalls’ work and how to support the Pedistrian Dignity Project, visit his website intrinsicpaths.com.