walking altoona

It had become a daily occurrence. A group of employees gathered to look out the window at a strange lady who walked past the office each day. Had this been twenty years earlier, the situation would have been so common it would hardly have warranted attention, but in 1995 in this small Pennsylvania city, it was a spectacle. The lady wasn’t strange for any other reason than that she was walking.

After she was first noticed, the mystery began to thicken. Where was she walking? Why was she walking? Was she convicted on drunk driving charges? Sightings began to pour in placing her in different parts of town, and a map of her cardiovascular activities began to form. She could be walking up to seven miles, twice a day!

Nobody asked the lady why she was walking or where she was going. If she had been going in circles on a track and covering who knows what distance, she wouldn’t have been the only one and the walking would have been clearly for her health, not for travel. If her motivating factor was travel, however, at least in this town, at this time, she was alone in choosing to walk rather than drive, and so her observers judged her strange. The strange lady who walks.

How had a once common activity become so out of the ordinary? It has come to be that in many cases walking has become inconvenient if not impossible. There’s no wonder why more people don’t walk in many of today’s communities. Stores and offices are often built along four (or more) lane roadways without sidewalks, which makes taking a walk not only unpleasant but risky. As we enter the twenty-first century, walking across town means being splashed by passing vehicles, going around obstacles, crossing wide, busy highways, going out of the way over a pedestrian obstacle course with little to look at besides plastic road-signs and miles of cement and macadam.

People claim they like cars because they are convenient. But in dense central cities they are not convenient–nor can they be made to be. Unless these existing dense cities rebuild their mass-transit systems, people will continue to abandon them for areas with more parking and more highways. Completely rebuilding these cities to be spaced for the automobile is impractical and even impossible, given that they can be rebuilt much more easily on virgin land. But, rebuilding them for the pedestrian will create an environment efficiently competitive with suburbia. Not that it will be easy.

The generations that grew up in the suburbs, endlessly being fed the party line that cities were dangerous places, home to crime and poverty, will not even consider that the conveniences of city living have more value than the illusion of protection and security provided by suburban living. Yet from the beginning of civilization, settlements in the form of towns served as protection from threat, want, and uncertainty, just as later ethnic neighborhoods served largely the same purpose. Today the suburban house is assigned to serve as a lonely fortress isolating its inmates from the ever-changing outside world. But today danger and social dysfunction may be most easily perpetuated by isolation. Today a suburban shopping mall parking lot can be far more dangerous than an urban street. Empty cars make far less effective witnesses than crowds of fellow pedestrians would. Density makes for safety as well as social stimulation.

Density, however, while important to a pedestrian-friendly atmosphere, need not necessarily be in the image of Newark or the Lower East Side. Many communities such as Shaker Heights, Ohio, or Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania, while being far less dense than Newark, have some of the comforting qualities of modern suburbs but contain many more people per square mile. In fact, today’s America, taken as a whole, is denser than at any other time in its history, yet a typical American wastes half an hour to 45 minutes driving his or her lonely way to work, up to half an hour more in the car at lunch time, another 45 minutes wheeling home, and up to an hour and a half driving to and from the mall, to a movie, a grocery, a park, or wherever else after work. For the economists among us, that’s all time that could instead be spent making widgets and creating wealth. To the rest of us, up to four or more hours in the car each day is a large part of any life that few would argue couldn’t be better spent in other ways–perhaps simply walking out under the sky and enjoying the world on your way.

About Eric Miller

Rick and I started this web magazine as The New Colonist back in 1999. I was in San Francisco, and he was in Los Angeles. We had a common interest in sustainability and city life. We're still at it. Today I am happy to have lived in both New York, San Francisco and Pittsburgh and to now reside in Dallas. Find more at ericmiller.me