01 May 2012


My friend Bill sent me the link to a four-part series of articles on walking ~ how little we do compared to other countries (or compared to generations past in this country), why that is, and what we can do about it.  It's not news to those living in the U.S. that starting a century ago, walking was increasingly supplanted by automobile travel.  At first cars were an oddity, but it wasn't long before pedestrians became a minority on city streets and country roads.  Civil engineers and city planners now assume that accommodating vehicular traffic is the starting point for any urban, suburban, or even rural design.  "Walking in America has become an act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text .... America is a country that has forgotten how to walk.

"Here are just some of the benefits, physical, cognitive, and otherwise, that [walking] bestows ~ walking six miles a week is associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer's;  walking can help improve your child's academic performance;  make you smarter;  reduce depression;  lower blood pressure;  even raise one's self-esteem.  And most important, though perhaps least appreciated in the modern age, walking is the only travel mode that gets you from Point A to Point B on your own steam, with no additional equipment or fuel required, from the wobbly threshold of toddlerhood to the wobbly cusp of senility.

"Despite these upsides, in an America enraptured by the cultural prosthesis that is the automobile, walking has become a lost mode, perceived as not a legitimate way to travel but a necessary adjunct to one's car journey, a hobby, or something that people without cars do .... The decline of walking has become a full-blown public health nightmare.

"The United States walks the least of any industrialized nation.  Studies employing pedometers have found that where the average Australian takes 9,695 steps per day (just a few shy of the supposed ideal '10,000 steps' plateau), the average Japanese 7,168, and the average Swiss 9,650, the average American manages only 5,117 steps.

" .... Why do we walk so comparatively little?  The first answer is one that applies virtually everywhere in the modern world ~ as with many forms of physical activity, walking has been engineered out of existence .... why then do Americans walk even less than people in other countries?  Here we need to look not at pedometers, but at the odometer.  We drive more than anyone else in the world .... More time spent driving means less time spent in other activities, including walking.  And part of the reason we are driving more is that we live farther from the places we need to go [schools, work, shopping, friends] .... And since our uncommon commitment to the car is at least in part to blame for the new American inability to put one foot in front of the other, the transportation engineering profession's historical disdain for the pedestrian is all that much more pernicious .... modeling software tends to treat [pedestrians] not as actual actors, but as a mere 'statistical distribution', or as an implicit 'vehicular delay'."

The above quote is from the series part 1, The Crisis in American Walking (how we got off the pedestrian path).  Within each part there are pictorial links to the others ~ part 2, Sidewalk Science (the peculiar habits of the pedestrian, explained), part 3, What's Your Walk Score? (the company that puts a number on walkability), and part 4, Learning to Walk (how American can start walking again).  This is something I definitely want to explore, and act on.  Incidentally, remember that target of 10,000 steps daily mentioned above?  For someone like me with a 2.5-foot stride, that translates to a little more than 4.7 miles' walking per day.  Say, an hour and a half?  That's quite a bit more than the half-an-hour, three-times-per-week target I've seen in some health sources.  But given that fully one-third of Americans (including children) are clinically obese, and another one-third are substantially overweight, 4-5 miles per day doesn't sound like a bad idea.  For those not in shape, it would be wise to start with a mile per day, then each week add a half mile.  That should make the adjustment fairly painless.

With regard to street design, I came across another article which addresses the need for safe pedestrian walkways which don't interrupt with automobile traffic like sidewalks do (and vice versa). It's called Take the Skyway, and describes the efforts in several major metro areas to establish networks of elevated walkways which shelter pedestrians from the elements.  (See the image above of a skyway network in the congested Pudong district of Shanghai, China.  Click to enlarge.)  Some readers may have encountered shorter skyways at major airports, or linking urban office buildings separated by a street, or even at some tourist attractions.  Their history in the U.S. has been one of mixed success, largely because, according to the author, "designers must recognize that they are creating a total environment, one that is very much the antithesis of city streets that promote serendipity and dynamism."  In other words, skyways remove one from the distractions and the movement conflicts of street-level sidewalks.  There's no window shopping up there, and no waiting at intersections ~ just safe, efficient travel on foot.  

I would like to see attractive greenery, landscaping, benches, and effective lighting built into any walkway design, as well as easy access to police or medical assistance in case of emergency.  Whether on the surface or up on a skyway, the experience of walking should be made pleasant, safe, and expedient.

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