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Why Walkability Matters

The ability—and perhaps, to some extent, the desire—to walk is largely disappearing from America, says Antonia Malchik. In an Aeon Magazine piece [1], she considers the ways we’ve undermined walking through modern urban planning, and through our obsession with cars:

For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.

In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.

Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.

It is true that if you’re watching the Super Bowl, say, it’s the car commercials that are stuffed with patriotism and references to good ole “Murica.” On a larger scale, the car (regardless of its size or make) seems to reference the ideals of individualism, autonomy, and privacy that many Americans hold dear. It’s a piece of privately-owned property that you can bring with you, wherever you go.

In a sense, Malchik’s piece makes me wonder whether the decline in home and/or property ownership has only made the car more important to Americans: because at least traditionally, it’s the home that we would associate with these feelings of pride and autonomy. But fewer Americans own property—and of those who do, fewer regard such ownership with the same sort of long-term allegiance. Owning a home is often a commercial endeavor, a rung on the ladder to bigger dreams and more square footage elsewhere. Thus, cars often help us express our sense of autonomy and personality in a way home ownership may have in the past.

Yet in the decline of walking—and correspondingly, in the decline of walkability—there are certain elements of community and culture that we may lose. Because despite its inefficiency or tediousness, walking provides several goods that the car cannot.

First, walking helps to cultivate community. Driving is an isolated mode of travel: it separates us physically from those around us, be they drivers, walkers, or bikers. Driving also promotes a desire for speed and efficiency: it spurs us to get somewhere fast, rather than urging us to enjoy the journey. When we drive, we usually have the end destination fixed in our minds. When we walk, we have time to stop, linger, and notice—perhaps even to say hello to passersby. Walking encourages us to take part in the fabric of the place we inhabit: it forces us to pay attention, and to acknowledge the others surrounding us. We have to share the sidewalk. We have to stop for cars or bikers, for strollers and dog walkers. It forces attention, and correspondingly, can foster relationships.

Second, walking provides space for the carless. There are many who either cannot afford an automobile, or who are more comfortable walking. For some, it may be a matter of principle: they believe biking and walking, taking public transportation when necessary, are healthier for them and better overall for the environment. For others, driving may be impossible due to health or financial reasons. I know a woman with brain cancer who is not allowed to drive—but she’ll often still try to walk to church or the grocery store when she cannot get a ride. Having safe sidewalks and intersections provides her an essential means of transportation.

Such services not only offer space for the carless—they also foster a safer environment overall. A society with walkers is a slower-paced society. Some view this as a bad thing—they prefer being able to get from point A to point B with the greatest amount of speed possible. But speed and efficiency often curb community closeness—and they can be lethal for the carless, who are left with no choice but to cross busy intersections or navigate narrow sidewalks alongside highways. Providing space for walkers encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention. It forces them to be present, and conscientious, of those around them.

Correspondingly, walking should teach mindfulness to pedestrians, in how and where they walk. It should force them to pay attention to their environment and teach them to be prudent. (Though the walker’s prudent decisions are often impeded or negated by the space they are given, and/or by drivers’ carelessness. The burden of responsibility is on the driver—owner as they are of the faster, heavier, more isolated vehicle—to be aware of their surroundings.) Thus we see that walking and walkability can teach prudence and responsibility, to both drivers and walkers. It encourages both to be mindful of the other, and fosters an environment in which speed is secondary to safety, efficiency to wellbeing.

Finally, walking is important because it breaks down insular barriers that keep us from knowing and appreciating our place, our moment. Matthew Crawford spends a lot of time talking about this in his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head:

… The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating idea seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. … The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating.

… Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them.

The more we insulate ourselves from those around us, the less safety and community we are able to enjoy. Crawford points out that cars weren’t always this way—but it is largely what they have become, through modern automobile engineering. The question, thus, is whether we should hold up driving as an emblem of American individuality and expression, or whether we should, cognizant of cars’ limits and dangers, also make room in our society—and on our roads—for the walker, who also embodies important American ideals: those of neighborliness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility (to name a few).

Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.

17 Comments (Open | Close)

17 Comments To "Why Walkability Matters"

#1 Comment By David Naas On August 21, 2015 @ 4:19 pm

Ray Bradbury was a prophet.

#2 Comment By JonF On August 21, 2015 @ 4:29 pm

We should be clear about something: For all but a small fraction of the population “Walkability” cannot mean “never need a car for anything”. I live in a major city (Baltimore) I use my bike as much as possible, and weather permitting I take the Metro to work (using my bike between stations and home/office). My car was stolen at the beginning of this month and much as I like the idea of being carless, I also know I can’t do that. The weather here is iffy enough (especially in winter) where biking is not always possible. I have to go shopping and often that entails too much, too heavy or too bulky loads to transport by bike (or on foot, or by bus, etc.). I am renting a car for this weekend because, among other errands, I have to take a cat to the vet. And I do occasionally travel places at a distance where road tripping is more efficient (and cheaper) than flying.

#3 Comment By Joanne On August 22, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

I am a pedestrian whenever possible. I detest driving. People in my area are really aggressive behind the wheel. Which is cowardly, really – I guarantee that most aggressive drivers would not have the nerve to go up behind someone, for example, in a grocery store, and walk up the person’s heels, say, “Come on, come in, get out of the way” (ie, the equivalent of leaning on the horn), etc. But bullies/cowards know how to choose their victims. How does a sane, normal person retaliate or even confront a jerk when driving? It’s difficult and probably just unlikely to happen.

I lived in Japan for a few years and I have often wondered what American urban “planners” have in mind when they are designing public spaces. Or what developers are thinking when they don’t include sidewalks going into their new shopping complexes. The guiding principle, at least in my area, never seems to be ease of use for pedestrians.

No doubt I am dreaming, and there is lots we could do to make America more walkable, but what I would love to see more of in the U.S. is a very smart and extremely common feature of Japanese urban areas, namely, pedestrian foot bridges. Great for walkers and bike riders, but also I would say for drivers, too.

#4 Comment By James Newberry On August 22, 2015 @ 4:06 pm

I lived in a village in Germany during high school (dad was in the Army). It was really nice being able to walk most places. Even the farmers lived in town and drove out or walked to their farm. But I don’t blame the car as much as the lawn obsession. Most Germans have cars but they don’t have lawns (or they have small ones). Denser housing but lots of green spaces for everyone to share.

#5 Comment By Boris On August 22, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

I see this as a cultural divide between urban America, which walks as a matter of course (as the structure of cities allows for walkability, for the most part) and the suburbs and rural America which knows no reality except the car as a means of transport and as a necessary link to the most minimal quality of life.

We’ve built a world where, outside of the city, walking is impractical, socially unacceptable, and frankly, dangerous.

#6 Comment By Sam On August 22, 2015 @ 9:15 pm

Thank you for bringing more attention to this subject. Cars are financial black holes and hurtling death traps operated by woefully under trained operators. I will never argue cars have no place in society, they fill their role, but the over use and cult-like zealous religiosity for them is a road to nowhere. “MUST BUY NEW MUST BUY NOW OR ELSE AMERICA WILL DIE” but how is it economically sustainable for a consumer or manufacturer when finite numbers of people can drive cars and preexisting cars all ready on the market? I do not understand how we can continue to think there is a future in such a foolhardy endevour. If only we had a national passenger rail network …

#7 Comment By Nelson On August 22, 2015 @ 10:59 pm

I just returned from a nice little trip to Seoul, Korea. It is a massive city yet I felt I could get anywhere within it via a combination of subway, bus and walk.

#8 Comment By Winston On August 23, 2015 @ 1:00 am

For me there are very few livable p;aces in US? Why? Because I want the freedom of walking to places. A car is a liability.

Theboomerswill soon wake up rality that instead of freedom they are stuck in a trap as they will not be able to travel freely without endangering people ( a college friend was killed by a senior who lost control of the vehicle) and live in low service suburbs.

#9 Comment By PST On August 23, 2015 @ 8:45 am

I agree with JonF that even for those of us who live in walkable environments and make good use of non-automotive transportation options, a car is often the right tool for the job. That doesn’t necessarily mean we all need to own cars, however. You can take a lot of taxis and rent a lot of cars for less than the inclusive cost of ownership, which really adds up. New services like Uber and Zipcar are making non-ownership easier all the time. Obviously this depends on location and circumstance. I’m not suggesting that suburban families with four kids give it a shot. But many of us can get by quite nicely and save money while still using cars when we need to. By the way, I have taken a cat to the vet on a bicycle, carrier strapped to rack. I wouldn’t do it twice.

#10 Comment By Junior On August 23, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

Nowadays everyone that I see walking, 9 times out of ten, have on headphones listening to music and are in their own world because of it so they aren’t really cultivating community. I also think that a bigger problem for cultivating a community is that people are ALWAYS playing with their cellphones when in groups. It seems that nobody wants to communicate with each other anymore.

Personally, I enjoy driving and listening to music. I must admit though that I blast my music like a damn idiot. I know it can be obnoxious but I can’t help myself because I enjoy it loud. I think in some warped way that I’m sharing good music with society. Everything from MF DOOM to the Grateful Dead gets blasted. I don’t care what the genre, if it’s good music then everyone’s gonna hear it. I know I have issues but I SWEAR it’s coming from a positive motivation =)

Here’s an apropos to the article song which talks about why the car is so important to us ‘Muricans. I suggest everyone turn the volume to ten when listening. Walkability matters, but so does Rockabilly-ty =)

#11 Comment By William On August 23, 2015 @ 8:51 pm

I would love to be able to walk to pretty much anywhere I needed to go, for the reasons listed here but also for convenience and the exercise. That being said, I think there are pretty significant trade-offs to having a pedestrian-centric culture, primarily the likelihood that such a society would be a poorer one. The car and, its associated infrastructure, opens up countless employment options that simply wouldn’t exist in a significantly more pedestrian context. It’s also likely that if the scenario were inverted, with shrinking opportunities for solo driving, there would be complaints about how the pedestrian-centric culture was limiting people’s freedom/autonomy, privacy, ability to escape a suffocating locality, etc. There are clear benefits-and drawbacks-to both (the third main option, public transportation, has its pros and cons as well, though I don’t think it would solve the above-mentioned car-related problems).

The author, of course, is not arguing an either/or, and I think the answer to her concluding question is a resounding “both!” Successfully integrating both transportation methods is quite difficult, and is not a matter of merely idiosyncratic preference, but of class, age/health, and geographic divides. I’m reminded of a recent op-ed in a local alt paper in my city calling for reducing the amount of parking in the in-town areas in order to build more commercial and residential properties. The comment section displayed a strident and at times nasty divide between people who lived in town and those from the suburbs. We’ve got our work cut out for us.

#12 Comment By mlindroo On August 24, 2015 @ 11:29 am

I am a bit surprised health and exercise are barely mentioned at all in this article … the ability to cover huge distances by foot used to be part of the human lifestyle for thousands of generations. That is why walking is a good way of fighting obesity as well.

#13 Comment By Susan On August 25, 2015 @ 6:04 pm

I have four kids and no car. It’s occasionally a hassle. But I don’t think the number of kids increases the hassle. You can put four kids on a bus easier than buckling four kids in a minivan. Walking in the city with kids is great. I’m fortunate to be able to do it this way.

#14 Comment By Tom Tomko On August 27, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

Some observations from a walker. I usually take a stroll around the circle every day on which I live. Approximately 50 houses are on this circle. In the course of 50 years, I have met only one person who is usually walking his dog. Most of the people on this circle I have never seen or met. I can see through the front windows of almost every house on the circle the gigantic TV screen blazing away. Conclusion: walking and talking to one’s neighbors is a lost art, probably forever doomed like so many other good things about America.

#15 Comment By mulp On September 1, 2015 @ 7:34 pm

First time I’ve seen a conservative admit that cars are too expensive for millions of people and that millions of people are not qualified or safe to drive a car, and thus they must walk or bike or use public transit.

Welcome to reality.

#16 Comment By Joanne On September 22, 2015 @ 11:19 pm

“I just returned from a nice little trip to Seoul, Korea. It is a massive city yet I felt I could get anywhere within it via a combination of subway, bus and walk.”

Sounds like the Tokyo area. ?

#17 Comment By Creigh Gordon On November 14, 2015 @ 10:21 pm

“4700 pedestrians killed, and 66000 injured.” Given the asymmetry of consequences for a pedestrian-car accident, it should be a presumption that fault lies with the motor vehicle operator in these accidents. It rarely is.