Get Out and Walk!

Posted on April 19, 2012 by Mickey

The lady and I were house-shopping recently, and it didn’t take long for me to figure out where my priorities were. Reading the real estate listings, you’d be forgiven if you came to think of ceiling height, closet space and quarried countertops as the most important factors in choosing a home. But I realized that, as we were driving through various nearby towns and their neighborhoods, that I’d been almost unconsciously taking mental notes about the sidewalks, or lack thereof, and distances to transportation hubs and amenities. When we started the hunt, I’d been primarily concerned with the age of the roof and the ability of the yard to support a garden, but now I found myself eliminating a house before we even saw if there wasn’t a sidewalk along the main road to the subdivision. 

Last week, Slate ran a four-part series by Tom Vanderbilt, the first installment of which was called The Crisis In American Walking. It explored the fact that, relative to the rest of the world, we don’t do a whole lot of walking anymore, which can be explained pretty easily: We no longer have anyplace to walk to. Sure, we’ve got lots of places to go, but we’ve engineered our lives and our world to be navigated exclusively by car. We often can’t walk someplace even if we want to.

Where the lady and I live now is a perfect example. We chose our current apartment due to its proximity to the city and a freeway. There are also sidewalks, although they frequently end for no apparent reason (at which point a well-worn dirt path always assumes the burden, proving the need for the non-existent pavement.) Our apartment complex sits amid a big wad of similar developments, all surrounded by barbed-wire-topped fencing, as if Spalding Bridge is going to raise arms and mount a surprise offensive against The Residences at Morgan Falls if the latter is left undefended. Of course, apartments are where you find the vast majority of people who rely on their own two feet and public transit to get around, so the effect of all that chainlink is to turn what should be a one-mile walk to the nearest grocery store into a 2.5-mile flanking maneuver (or at least it would be, if not for that enterprising trailblazer with the wire cutters; I give thanks to this nameless hero every time I go through that well-used hole in the fence.)

All of this just illustrates how little we plan for any kind of pedestrian travel, even in areas populated heavily with the car-less. The third part in Slate’s series on walking described a company that attempts to quantify the walkability of a city or specific location: Walk Score. Through the devil’s magic of algorithms, Walk Score assigns a number to a place based on the distances to nearby things like coffee shops, stores and parks. The Mission district in San Francisco scores a 96 out of 100. The Atlanta exurb where my parents live gets a 5.

The house that we eventually settled on and will soon occupy falls between those extremes, at 46, which is actually an increase over the more densely populated area we’re in now. Of course, part of the reason our cities and suburbs are so pedestrian-unfriendly is because of the desire of people like us to own houses with yards, which serves to spread everything out, necessitating all those roads and the cars upon them. We won’t be able to walk to too many places, at least not quickly, but the deciding factor for me was the bikeability of our neighborhood, which connects to a major pathway system that will allow us to ride our bikes to many restaurants, movie theaters and a shopping mall on dedicated bike paths.

After I started thinking about the problem of walking in America, it occurred to me that the simple act of walking may very well solve all of our problems. If we all lived in walkable neighborhoods, the obesity epidemic and all of its associated maladies (heart disease, diabetes, etc.) would virtually disappear (Don’t believe me? Go to Europe or Japan and try to find a fat person. Also notice all the walking going on.) Less driving would mean less pollution, less money spent on roads and less dependence on oil. Less dependence on oil would mean… well, I’m sure you can see these dominoes just keep falling. And all for a little walking. It sounds like exaggeration, but think there’s really something to this.

So what’s your Walk Score?

6 Comments +

  1. Hear, hear. The walkability/bikeability of my neighborhood was precisely why I bought my house in the ‘hood. Our WalkScore is 63, which I think is actually kind of low because it misses a couple of close things, like the Knoxville greenway.

    I agree that so many of our woes would be taken care of with more pedestrian-/public transit-friendly cities, but can you imagine what kind of overhaul it would take for us to get there?

    April 19th, 2012 at 9:24 am
    Comment by The Modern Gal
  2. I live in probably the most walkable neighborhood in a not very walkable city, and it has been a huge adjustment from my previous, very walkable city. I still walk everywhere, but some days it seems like no one else does.

    April 19th, 2012 at 9:33 am
    Comment by Ris
  3. Detached single family homes are probably the worst thing for the environment. By themselves, they’re not so bad, but they spread things out, increase car use, and make for inefficient use of energy.There’s a reason dense cities are much more environmentally friendly than the suburbs or even rural areas.

    April 19th, 2012 at 9:50 am
    Comment by Jacob
  4. I live in a relatively walking-friendly and bike-friendly city – Eugene, Oregon. The Walk Score for my address is 80. And yet, still we are constantly fighting here to have more pedestrian and bike paths. Most people still drive, even very short distances, even in a city that is very walkable and has a decent public transit system. When it comes down to it, people want the convenience of getting around by car no matter the cost to environment or their own health. I think this will be the case until gas prices and availability *force* a change.

    One of the best benefits of walking everywhere, for me, is that I go slowly enough to appreciate the landscape, the change in seasons, the million tiny things one misses when rushing by in a car. I know which flowers are blooming at every point on the 1 mile route to my workplace. And it gives me some quiet alone time to think. But these things aren’t much valued in our culture.

    April 19th, 2012 at 10:28 am
    Comment by Kate
  5. I live in a relatively walking-friendly and bike-friendly city – Eugene, Oregon. The Walk Score for my address is 80. And yet, still we are constantly fighting here to have more pedestrian and bike paths. Most people still drive, even very short distances, even in a city that is very walkable and has a decent public transit system. When it comes down to it, people want the convenience of getting around by car no matter the cost to environment or their own health. I think this will be the case until gas prices and availability *force* a change.

    One of the best benefits of walking everywhere, for me, is that I go slowly enough to appreciate the landscape, the change in seasons, the million tiny things one misses when rushing by in a car. I know which flowers are blooming at every point on the 1 mile route to my workplace. And it gives me some quiet alone time to think. But these things aren’t much valued in our culture.

    April 19th, 2012 at 10:28 am
    Comment by Kate
  6. Walkability is such a chicken-or-egg debate. People are against the expense of overhauling our infrastructure because they say no one walks, but no one walks because we don’t have the infrastructure. I’d happily support a tax increase for the measurable difference in my life a sidewalk or greenway would make, and I think people would enjoy it if it were there — we just have to get there first. If we build it, they will come.

    April 19th, 2012 at 10:53 am
    Comment by courtney

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If It Doesn’t Smell, Don’t Wash It

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According to Real Simple, if every American made an effort to launder less — cutting out just one load of laundry a week per household — we’d save enough water to fill seven million swimming pools each year.

So if it looks clean, and it smells clean, call it clean and wear it again. Consider hanging worn clothes out on your clothesline to freshen them up between wearings.


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