Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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One Response to “Walking: Is it Just for Charity?”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why Did We Stop Walking and How Do We Start Again? « At the Helm of the Public Realm - May 13, 2012

    [...] automobile is still very much alive today. I wrote about the Raquel Nelson case last month (read it here). In case you are not familiar, this woman was charged for the death of her own son when he was [...]

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