How do we get people off their duff, and get them to walk?
When we first worked on San Cristobal Village, I rented a Cessna 182 and flew on an 80 degree Sunday afternoon from Albuquerque to Santa Fe, taking over 300 pictures of newer suburban and new urban based developments, all with sidewalks each side of the street. I’m not sure how many miles of walks that equates to, but certainly hundreds of not approaching a thousand miles. Yet, only three people were walking in all the pictures – two with dogs and one with a stroller.
Most of the street patterns were typically suburban, streets with no particular destination or functional pattern. Since all sidewalks were regulated to be on both sides of the street, and the streets were difficult enough to drive about, walking would be even worse. Even the few New Urban developments with more attention to walking had nobody strolling about.
If it’s difficult to walk, and there are no places to actually walk as a destination, how can we expect to create walkable environments? The 4’ wide walk that seems to be prescribed in most cities is simply too narrow for a couple to walk side by side, so many use the streets instead if they actually walk the neighborhood.
I have lived in St. Louis Park for the past 16 years in two homes, both on streets without walks, yet I’ve observed that there seems to be as many people walking on the streets with walks as there are on streets without walks. On streets with walks, when two or more people are walking in a group, they are more likely to use the street. Given the density, there are actually very few walkers other than the religious residents walking to Synagogue on holy days, when hundreds of people trudge through snow, rain, ice, and heat use their feet as the only transportation mode. My wife and I walk whenever the time and weather allows, but our destination choices are few. No destination is less than a 10 minute walk. In 15 minutes we can be at Startbucks, Vitalli’s, Caribou, or Yum’s for a coffee and other than that Super America or the Holiday station. In 25 minutes in a maze-like pattern along unattractive ways we could walk to West End, the somewhat failed attempt at commercial development. Because of the theater and restaurants, it’s our destination of choice, yet we have never seen anyone from our neighborhood make that same walk in the 4 years we have been going there.
What does this all mean?
People who never walk places, are not likely to start if walking is inconvenient, boring, and feels dangerous. To create walkability we need to design the walk systems first and foremost – before the street patterns.
We need destinations that people desire. Certainly schools, churches, and coffee shops and restaurants (especially good and affordable ones) help, but does that park with a playground actually attract a significant number of walkers. Or maybe that gazebo along a pond… how many walkers does that attract?
Yet, when I lived in Maple Grove, that vast sprawling region of suburbanites, we had a steady flow of pedestrians passing by our mosquito embellished back yard along Fish Lake. The main trails and lakes near Uptown are full of nice weather walkers, and bikers, but these are major systems that serve exercise as well as people watching, and for the most part they are anything but boring. They also have unusually wide pathways and for the mostly (as with the Maple Grove trails) separated from vehicular traffic.
Can these values be incorporated in smaller localized development? Absolutely. But we must start thinking in terms that a pedestrian ‘system’ should be much different than a ‘vehicular ‘system’. We must also live with the reality that these systems pose unique dangers when water freezes, and that many people, not just the elderly, simply cannot walk far.
To be continued…