America Is a Walking Disaster

In much of the country, walking – that most basic and human method of movement, and the one most important to our health – is all but impossible.

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Complete Streets Coalition

In much of America, walking – that most basic and human method of movement, and the one most important to our health – is all but impossible. Maybe not literally impossible, but inconvenient at best, and tragically dangerous way too often.

Chances are that, no matter where we are from, the stretches of road shown in the photos accompanying this article look somewhat familiar. They might as well be labeled Anywhere, USA. The one above is from Denver. The Google Earth image below shows the US Route 1 corridor in Woodbridge, Virginia, about 25 miles south of downtown Washington, DC. I'm going to spend some time on Woodbridge today because of some incidents that have occurred there.

Home to the Potomac Mills discount mega-mall and not far from the Quantico Marine Corps base, Woodbridge is a diverse "census-designated place and magisterial district" whose population is 42 percent white, 28 percent black, and 32 percent Hispanic. It was mostly farms and light industrial complexes until the 1980s, when it began to be more suburbanized. What you see in the satellite view are, among other things, several auto dealerships and automobile service facilities, some single-family homes, some apartments, a trailer park, and a self-storage facility; all seem sort of plopped down by happenstance.

What you don’t see are any but the crudest accommodations for walking. This particular part of Woodbridge is a place for being either indoors or in a motor vehicle. If you were, say, an employee at the Pep Boys auto parts store, didn’t have a car on a given day, and wanted to grab a sandwich for lunch at Wendy’s right across the street, you’d have to walk nearly a mile, round trip, to cross the road with the benefit of a traffic signal. Even then, half your trip would have no sidewalk.

What many people with limited time would understandably do in that situation, instead, is attempt to cross the road using the shortest and most direct route between Pep Boys and Wendy’s, and hope their instincts and powers of observation would enable them to do so without getting hit. Some people do exactly that, without consequence. 

But other pedestrians aren’t so lucky. If they do get hit by a motor vehicle, under Virginia law the pedestrian is at fault for "interfering with traffic." Cars come first in the eyes of the law, and anyone who fails to respect that axiom takes chances in more ways than one.

I mention all this because it’s more or less what actually happens on this stretch of Route 1. Videographer Jay Mallin has made a video about it. It’s at the bottom of this post, it’s good, and you should watch it. But first allow me to take a bit more of your time by setting the context.

I was reminded of this story while browsing some articles I had saved on my Google Reader, one of which was “How pedestrians interfere with traffic,” written by the astute and prolific David Alpert on the Greater Greater Washington blog. David was impressed with Mallin’s video, which tells the story of two men who were hit by motor vehicles while trying to cross the road in separate incidents near the section of Route 1 that I marked. (You can see the Wendy’s in the background of the video.) Both pedestrians were evacuated to the hospital, and both were charged by police with interfering with traffic. The drivers were not charged.

Some would-be pedestrians in similar circumstances suffer far worse consequences, unfortunately. As some readers may remember, in 2011 a working single mother named Raquel Nelson was convicted of homicide after her four-year-old son was killed while both were trying to cross a busy road in suburban Atlanta. They were on their way home, carrying groceries after getting off the bus at a stop with no convenient crosswalk. As I wrote then, whatever Nelson’s legal culpability, I find it shocking that Atlanta officials chose to exercise their discretion to prosecute her for homicide under those circumstances. At least in that case the driver, who had been drinking and taking painkillers, and who had fled the scene, was also charged.

The nonprofit advocacy coalition Transportation for America (NRDC is a member) has found that, from 2000 through 2009, more than 47,700 pedestrians were killed in the United States. This is the equivalent of a jumbo jet full of passengers crashing roughly every month. On top of that, more than 688,000 pedestrians were injured over the decade, a number equivalent to a pedestrian being struck by a car or truck every 7 minutes.

Cheyenne, Wyoming. Tom Mason, via Transportation for America.

Even if you’re not killed or injured, you can't help but find much of suburban America inhospitable to walking. Just this week, Ben Ross reported in Greater Greater Washington that it took him eight and a half minutes to cross legally to the other side of a Maryland street, traversing 28 traffic lanes along the way. Two pedestrians had been severely injured at the same intersection earlier this month. Is it any wonder that, in the U.S., those with a choice choose to drive even the shortest of distances?

In 1973, sixty percent of American kids walked to school; by 2006, that portion had dropped to a paltry 13 percent. As a sign that times have changed, a story surfaced a few years ago that a mom and her 12-year-old son in Saratoga Springs, New York, were actually forbidden to ride bikes together to the son’s school, even on a bike path separated from car traffic. On the other side of the country, Laguna Beach refused to join over 400 California communities participating in International Walk to School Day, a supervised event, because "there are few sidewalks, winding roads with blind corners and a considerable distance for our students to travel and we cannot endorse walking or biking to school."

In Montgomery County, Maryland, the local Department of Transportation refused parents’ request for a crosswalk linking a large residential development to an elementary school right across the street because "the safest way is to have them bused to school" instead. If walking is no longer safe and convenient in relatively upscale Saratoga Springs and Laguna Beach, how are we going to fix a suburbanizing place whose residents may struggle to afford cars and arguably are even more in need of good alternatives?

Dhiru Thadani

Jeff Speck’s current book Walkable City provides some answers, but they aren’t going to work everywhere. His "ten steps of walkability" to create urban environments more conducive to foot travel include such effective measures as placing more housing downtown, restricting free parking, and coordinating transit with nearby land uses. If we do these things in Boise or Houston or Greensboro or even Bakersfield, it is likely that we will, indeed, make the city more walkable. 

But can we have a walkable city where we don’t have a city in the first place? What if the location is just a "census-designated place" with a bunch of uncoordinated and unplanned properties that somehow ended up near each other along a high-speed road? The stretch of Route 1 in Woodbridge is not remotely ready for sophisticated measures.  

I suppose one answer is that, as the economy allows new businesses and homes to be built in and around the bad stuff, we gradually can make the newer land uses better and more "walk-ready" over time, so that the place can function better for pedestrians when the good stuff reaches critical mass. That might take a while, though, because many of these places are not the kind of prosperous communities where change can occur rapidly and with the degree of investment necessary to do it right. 

Maybe Jeff could write a sort of prequel to his book (easy for me to say), with ten preliminary steps to get a mess of a place such as Route 1 in Woodbridge ready for the ten steps of walkability featured in his current one.

Arthur Wendel, via Transportation for America

Whatever the right approach, it matters: a lot of places in America are a lot like Woodbridge. And, if we don’t start exercising more, including by walking, the prospects for our collective health are daunting. The single most alarming public health trend in the United States today is the dramatic rise in overweight and obesity, bringing serious risks of heart disease, diabetes and other consequences leading to life impairment and premature death.  

While these are complex challenges, and there are many factors at play, our country’s sedentary lifestyle is an important one. In a massive study of half a million residents of Salt Lake County, researchers at the University of Utah found that an average-sized man weighed 10 pounds less if he lived in a walkable neighborhood – "those that are more densely populated, designed to be more friendly to pedestrians and have a range of destinations for pedestrians" – versus a less walkable one. A woman of average size weighed six pounds less. Other research has found that men and women age 50-to-71 who took a brisk walk nearly every day had a 27 percent reduced death rate compared to non-exercisers.  

This isn't the first time I have written on this subject, and it certainly won't be the last. It's too important to ignore.

Now, as promised, here’s the video:

Interfering with Traffic from Jay Mallin on Vimeo.

This post originally appeared on the NRDC Switchboard blog, an Atlantic partner site.

About the Author

  • Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More
    Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.