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Walking Towards Change

Creating a pedestrian culture in our communities is possible, but it takes some creativity.

One cold December day in 1913, a man put on a Santa suit and started America down the path towards criminalizing walking. “Jay-walker!” he taunted, startling people who strolled in the middle of the street. With the help of the auto lobby the term soon became ubiquitous, and suddenly roads were no longer the rightful domain of pedestrians.

A century later we’re struggling to overcome the problems we created by shifting the focus of public space from people to cars. In 2013, nearly 5,000 pedestrians died in traffic crashes in the US, and 66,000 were injured. Obesity rates in the US have soared in the past two decades, driven by neighborhood designs that discourage physical activity. Air pollution, water pollution, habitat loss, and other environmental troubles are all linked to the predominance of private vehicle travel in America.

Even more discouraging is the fact that these problems disproportionately affect our most vulnerable populations. For example, one recent study showed the rate of pedestrian deaths in poor neighborhoods was twice as high as those in richer areas. Car culture hurts everyone, but it hurts children, the elderly, and poor people the most.

Nonetheless, we’re still reluctant to give up our cars. So thoroughly do they dominate our landscape that the prospect of shifting space or resources away from driving sparks cries of outrage so choleric that they often derail good projects. But we can change that. Here’s how:

Build Happiness

People will choose to walk if we make walking fun. Spend five minutes chasing a toddler down the sidewalk and you’ll see how they’re fascinated by every detail, from the colors of the pavement to the texture of a squashed bug. If we prioritize the pedestrian experience, we can build streets where this sense of discovery extends to people of every age.

Prioritizing pedestrians means putting windows and building entrances, not parking lots, next to sidewalks. It means making landscaping integral to every roadway improvement project, instead of an afterthought. It means following the lead of San Diego, where a musical guardrail next to a sidewalk plays a song as its rails are struck, or Seattle, where sidewalks are covered with pictures that only appear when the pavement is wet, or Baltimore, where a crosswalk is shaped like a giant hopscotch game. Surprises like these are what engage people in the walking environment. They make walking something to be enjoyed, not endured.

Break a Few Laws

Today, cars are central to the rules governing how we build and operate our cities. Everything, from the standards dictating the width of a road to the laws assigning fault when a pedestrian is killed, firmly favors drivers. When the legal system is so biased against walking, it can be impossible to work within it. That’s when it’s time to break the rules.

Matt Tomasulo and his classmates understood this when they stealthily posted signs at three Raleigh intersections. The signs included directions to popular tourist destinations, as well as walking times and links to online maps. City officials initially removed the wayfinding makers because sign regulations prohibited the non-sanctioned signs on city property, even when they encouraged walking. Fortunately, the city quickly reversed its stance and embraced the signs as a way to promote walkability. Now Tomasulo’s website Walk [Your City] offers similar signs that any city can use. Sometimes it takes acts of guerrilla urbanism to get the attention of people entrenched in a culture of driving.

Put People First

Look carefully at nearly any street in the US and you’ll see something disconcerting: the infrastructure for cars is in the center, taking up the vast majority of road space. Meanwhile, the infrastructure for people—sidewalks, parkways, trees, benches—is literally pushed to the side. Playing around at the edges of the road won’t shift the transportation paradigm. For real change, we need bold moves that don’t marginalize walking. We need to put people where they belong: at the center of the transportation system.

Bogota has been putting people first for four decades. During its weekly Ciclovia, 70 miles of city streets are closed to vehicles to allow walking, biking, skating, and even aerobics classes on roadways that would otherwise be clogged with traffic. It’s amazing what can happen when 2 million people take over the streets. There are new opportunities to exercise, shop, and socialize throughout the city. Colombians also like to point out an unexpected benefit of Ciclovia: in a country rigidly divided by class, the event allows rich and poor to mix freely. On the streets of Ciclovia everyone is equal. From janitors to doctors, everyone is a pedestrian.

If Americans can remember that, maybe we can change our own culture as well.

Read more in this debate: Ralph Buehler, Klaus Bondam, James Longhurst.

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