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Whatever Happened to Walking?

Starting today in Slate, I take a four-part look at walking, the “forgotten transportation mode,” in America and elsewhere.

Simply by going out for a walk, I had become a strange being, studied by engineers, inhabiting environments whose physical features are determined by a rulebook-enshrined average 3 foot-per-second walking speed, my rights codified by signs. (Why not just write: “Stop for People”?) On those same signs in Savannah were often attached additional signs, advising drivers not to give to panhandlers (and to call 911 if physically intimidated), subtly equating walking with being exposed to an urban menace—or perhaps being the menace. Having taken all this information in, we would gingerly step into the marked crosswalk, that declaration of rights in paint, and try to gauge whether approaching vehicles would yield. They typically did not. Even in one of America’s most “pedestrian-friendly” cities—a seemingly innocent phrase that itself suddenly seemed strange to me—one was always in danger of being relegated to a footnote.

Which is what walking in America has become: An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. Witness, for example, the existence of “Everybody Walk!,” the “Campaign to Get America Walking” (one of a number of such initiatives). While its aims are entirely legitimate, its motives no doubt earnest, the idea that that we, this species that first hoisted itself into the world of bipedalism nearly 4 million years ago—for reasons that are still debated—should now need “walking tips,” have to make “walking plans” or use a “mobile app” to “discover” walking trails near us or build our “walking histories,” strikes me as a world-historical tragedy.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 10th, 2012 at 7:19 am and is filed under Pedestrians, Traffic Culture, Traffic Engineering. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

15 Responses to “Whatever Happened to Walking?”

  1. Merinda Says:

    Good article and I look forward to the rest. It bothers me to no end that I drive every day to work, and it’s only a mile. But there is no sidewalk and it’s along a 45mph road and I just don’t feel safe walking on the shoulder. I should probably do it anyway, but fear keeps me in my car. I do dart across that same 45mph road to go to the grocery, however, since it’s literally across the street I’d feel like the laziest person alive if I drove.

  2. Roger Schulman Says:

    I love your blog and appreciate your coverage of an important and neglected topic. Yesterday I’m proud to say I walked 12 miles, much of it uphill, after I left my car at the repair shop. Lest you think this poetically ironic, I walk about 5-6 miles each day whether or not my car is drivable.

    But I must say you spend too many column inches drawing the dubious parallel between the word “pedestrian” and our society’s attitude about walking. “Pedestrian” means someone who’s on foot; “pedestrian” means something commonplace or common. We get it. One sentence. Maybe two. A few paragraphs? It’s a real barrier to the actual substance of your piece. A respectful suggestion: less poetry, more prose. Thanks.

  3. Jack Says:

    Want to have some good laughs? Just watch how difficult it is for most to “walk” from their car to their shopping destination. “Walking tips” (lessons) definitely needed. Personal interaction, info sharing, civility, peacefulness all suffer when cars are treated better than people by traffic engineers.

    Locally we have MeetUp groups that gather at the local large mall to walk indoors before the shops open. And of course they drive there – - parking is FREE.

  4. SteveL Says:

    Merinda shows how US cities engineer out pedestrians. Not just in removing the sidewalks, but by making crossing so dangerous you wouldn’t do it. Even when there are scheduled crossing times you have to wait minutes for them -and cars turn over you anyway.

    The fact that vehicles can turn into pedestrian crossings when they have the walk light shows how little regard the society has for people on foot -they are less important than the journey times of the drivers.

  5. Margaret R Says:

    Great article about walking. I am surprised that I did not see treadmill desks mentioned. I am at 1560 miles and counting…..all while working at my office.

  6. DG Says:

    I’m reading the Slate series right now. I’m struck that the photo caption of the girl in Kentucky who is driven from the house to the road to catch the schoolbus includes her name. The photo credits the Washington Post so perhaps there was a previously published article that identified her by name also, but if not it seems a little cruel to have this (somewhat stocky) 12-year-old girl now be known as the poster child for obesity.

    Good articles though.

  7. Ruth Says:

    I liked the Slate series very much. As usual, it made me wonder about a few things. Here are some questions:

    Is coming to work slightly sweaty from a walk more acceptable in places like NYC where many walk? Is “avoiding exertion” just a desire to avoid exertion, or is there a cleanliness factor there, too?

    Do teens who live in areas with high walk scores and who are closer to businesses get jobs earlier? Does being able to walk change their lifetime earnings or health profile or are the effects on income and health temporary if the teen grows into an adult who doesn’t walk? Do teens who can walk to work get cars sooner because they can afford them, or later because they don’t need them?

    In areas with sidewalks that appear to be even and in good repair, why do many people walk in the street? Is feeling safe enough to walk in the street in a neighborhood with sidewalks correlated to how “desirable” the neighborhood is for people who want single-family homes with yards?

    Does the new five-foot width recommended for sidewalks depend on what wheelchair users need to pass, the space pairs or triplets of walkers need to walk as a group (and still have enough personal space — thinking of the photo of executives all in a row), or some other factor?

    Are business streets more walkable or less when the stores have wide, indented entrances or canopies that extend over several feet of the walkway (without columns or supports to obstruct flow), or are flat storefronts better for flow?

    When trash cans are put in the street for garbage pickup or left in the street after pickup, are there more accidents, or is the issue trivial? Are pedestrians slower on trash days in suburban neighborhoods?

    Are transit scores affected by government officials’ fear of graffiti? Does bus-shelter graffiti reduce home values near bus stops, or does the convenience of the bus stop outweigh the aesthetics? Are communities with bus stops but no bus shelters more “upscale” or poor or are there no correlations?

    Will the “street trees are good”/”trees wreck sidewalks” divide ever be bridged?

  8. drew Says:

    When a driver exits the car to cross the street, many do some sort of short/quick jog while crossing, which is a display of an unconscious message to drivers that they regret the slight delay they may cause.
    Of course we are all peds when we exit the car, and our status, it seems, takes an immediate hit.
    I remember seeing the signs in Savannah about panhandling. They advise calling 911 if you are asked for money; no perceived physical threat is required.

  9. Charles Elliott Says:

    The whole pedestrian thing is very interesting to me. Used to walk at least three miles per day, but have become more sedentary in retirement. When I walk now it infuriates me how much the cars have taken over, even in my neighborhood where a small scale could make this corner of the megalopolis livable, without the roar and the agressive drivers. Wrote a poem about it, “The Last Pedestrian.” The website link above is actually my YouTube reading of that meditation. Enjoy!

  10. JaccoW Says:

    As a Dutchman I was surprised a few years ago when I was on a holiday in the U.S.
    We were staying in a hotel very close to Disneyland California. We just followed the signs and were walking on a very nice pathway towards the entrance lined with orchids and flowers.
    The suddenly the sidewalk turned to the right only to end into a maintenance entrance…

    After just a few hundred meters we came to the parking lot which required you to enter a stupid noisy little train to get to the entrance.
    It is my most vivid memory of that day. That, and the fact that we only got to visit 4 (four!) rides in the 12 hours that we were in the park because of the ridiculous waiting lines. Those we not $200 well spent.

  11. Wayman Says:

    I feel that some cities just do not encourage people to walk. We need more pedestrian friendly cities and streets. I am lucky to be living in one and I make sure to walk to my destinations whenever I can as I already spend most of my time sitting in front of my desk.

  12. Nick M. Says:

    In a society that pushes for convenience and instant gratification then is it really a surprise that people look for ways to avoid walking? Admittedly safety can be an issue but I really think it’s a matter of laziness.

  13. transportation engineer Says:

    Walking has definitely disappeared in America. With everyone wanted to get where they are going fast, walking is just too slow. It is a lost art.

  14. Paul Godsmark Says:

    I am reminded of the Piano Stairs in VW’s ‘Fun Theory’ collection:
    http://www.thefuntheory.com/
    The ‘stick; approach never seems to work that well and only as long as the ‘stick’ is applied. Is the carrot’ approach any better?…

  15. DensityDuck Says:

    CAUTION AHEAD XING PED

    By the time you figure out what that’s supposed to mean, you’ve X’ed a ped.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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