Why Are American Cities Not Able to Encourage Large Numbers to Walk?

 

By Dom Nozzi

May 28, 2009

The conventional wisdom says that we can encourage large numbers of people to walk if we just provided a lot of well-designed sidewalks.

But after over 20 years, I’m still waiting for American cities to show this will happen. The city I worked for as a town planner had nearly 100 percent coverage of neighborhoods by sidewalks, but only a vanishingly small number of citizens walked – even though our population contained a large number of relatively healthy, young strip commercial sidewalkstudents.

Why are more not walking? Is there something we could do to sidewalks to make them more “enjoyable, comfortable, and safe”?

Could it maybe be that people prefer driving when all that free and abundant parking that awaits them everywhere, rather than walking 5 miles?

I’m still waiting for ONE example of a community in the US which has successfully employed the strategy of widespread sidewalk provision to encourage a lot of walking.

I know of none.

Even if there was a community which could afford the astronomical costs, sidewalks (and bike lanes and bike paths) are not likely to induce regular commuting or shopping trips by mom, kids and seniors (and healthy young people) when the distances are extreme, as they are in almost all of suburbia.

Fortunately for those of us who urge effective tactics, it doesn’t really matter if we have no elected officials who are willing to do what is necessary to effectively induce non-motorized travel (such as a big sales tax increase, or more compact development).

No matter how much most Americans love suburbia and car dependency, they will not be able to vote to escape the inevitable and substantial increase in gasoline prices, and other inevitably rising prices associated with car travel.

There will be a lot of pain, agony, wailing and gnashing of teeth when this happens — particularly in suburbia, where so many have thought that they were forever entitled to $2/gallon gas.

Once this inevitable increase sends gas over $10/gallon, Jim Kunstler and I (who discussed this yesterday at a cafe) are certain that there will be a miraculous “enlightenment.” Suddenly, even committed suburbanites will want transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets. Such community features will become wildly popular (rather than there being vigorously opposed as they are today).

The problem, of course, is that if we’ve not installed quality transit, compact development, scarce and priced parking, mixed use, buildings at the sidewalk, and road diets in advance of the big rise in gas costs (because we are, as Jim Kunstler likes to say, wicked, fat, stupid, lazy, overfed clowns), there will be a lot of pain and violence.

Widening streets will not be possible in the future. We won’t have the money. And even today’s car cheerleaders and sprawl promoters will see that 8-lane roads don’t make sense when gas costs $15/gallon.

As for kids playing in the streets, I recommend reading Fighting Traffic (Norton). One hundred years ago, parents, teachers, and police officers insisted that kids had the right to freely play in the streets. Those days will return when gas prices skyrocket.

As a side note, even though NO ONE thought that university students in my Florida community would EVER ride the bus when I was a planner there in the 1980s, that city saw a HUGE numbers using the bus starting in the late 1990s.

Was it because we used the carrots of enjoyable, comfortable, and safe buses?

Nope.

It was because we used effective tactics that I also recommend for biking and walking: Parking at the university campus is scarce and priced (and a big pain in the ass).

I am fully and sadly aware that the effective tactics I recommend are extremely difficult, if not impossible to achieve in most of the US, politically. But opting for other more feasible tactics (bike lanes, bike parking, bike showers, sidewalks) doesn’t make them effective simply because we can achieve them more easily.

Let’s be honest: Most American communities are doomed because we have spent several decades building communities that have no future because it is nearly impossible to retrofit them for transportation choice and other forms of sustainability.

I’m building a bomb shelter for the coming empire collapse…

 

 

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Filed under Sprawl, Suburbia, Transportation, Urban Design

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