We Have Forgotten How to Walk

By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2012

"America is a country that has forgotten how to walk."

With that stark appraisal, Slate writer Tom Vanderbilt launches into a four part series of essays on the decline in walking in America.

Vanderbilt argues that the term "pedestrian" not only indicates a jarring distinction from other ways of moving around - chiefly driving - but also carries the negative connotation of dullness and banality. On reading a road sign that states "Stop for Pedestrians" he wonders, "Why not just write, 'Stop for people'?"

[I]n an America enraptured by the cultural prosthesis that is the automobile, walking has become a lost mode, perceived as not a legitimate way to travel but a necessary adjunct to one's car journey, a hobby, or something that people without cars - those pitiable "vulnerable road users," as they are called with charitable condescension - do.

Yet the collapse of walking as a normal part of life has "become a full-blown public health nightmare" - not just in America but across the industrialized world - and this compels us to understand why it declined and how we can get walking again.

The short answer, according to Vanderbilt, is that walking has been "engineered out of existence". A Canadian study of an Old Order Amish community found that its members walk on average 18,000 steps a day - some 14 km. (That puts my own 6 km a day walking commute to shame.)

Put simply: driving has displaced walking.

The National Household Travel Survey shows that the number of vehicle trips a person took and the miles they traveled per day rose from 2.32 trips and 20.64 miles [33.22 km] in 1969 to 3.35 and 32.73 [52.67] in 2001. More time spent driving means less time spent on other activities, including walking. And part of the reason we are driving more is that we are living farther from the places we need to go.

Easy to Drive, Hard to Walk

As we've argued on RTH, when a city makes it easier to drive, more people will drive longer distances more frequently. In turn, the road infrastructure itself pushes destinations farther apart and makes it more physically and psychologically challenging to walk between them.

More driving leads directly to less walking, not only because the time spent at the former eats into time available for the latter, but also because the infrastructure that makes driving easier makes walking harder.

We end up with such bizarre constructs as crosswalks on which drivers have the right of way and even intersections where crossing on foot is prohibited if it interferes with the smooth flow of automobile traffic, as on Hamilton's one-way thoroughfares.

We're told that these controls were put in place to protect pedestrians' safety, but the principal danger to pedestrians is fast automobile traffic. The solution should not be to restrict pedestrians - especially in mixed residential neighbourhoods where the ability to walk should be assumed - but to restrict fast automobile traffic.

Yet North American cities have ended up with the opposite: a road system optimized to accommodate fast traffic flows and a legal system in which it is illegal to cross the street except where it is explicitly allowed.

On-Paper Commitment to Walkability

While some cities are still debating the merits of sidewalks, Hamilton nevertheless struggles to transform its on-paper commitment to walkability into a road system worthy of the adjective.

A major stumbling block to walkability is the city's steadfast commitment to one-way thoroughfares through the lower city, predicated on the prime objective of fast flow-through automobile traffic.

A study published in the Canadian Journal of Public Health in 2000 and based on Hamilton collision data from 1978-1994 concluded: "The rate of injury for children ages 0 to 14 years was 2.5 times higher on one-way streets than on two-way streets (46.4 vs 19.6 per 100,000 children, per 100 km, per year)." The injury rate was also higher in poorer neighbourhoods than in wealthier neighbourhoods, but the elevated risk on one-way streets was independent of the higher risk in poor neighbourhoods.

The study could not draw direct conclusions about what particular aspect or aspects of one-way streets make them more dangerous, but the authors suggest that possible contributing factors to the elevated risk on one-way streets include higher average speed of traffic, higher average volume of traffic, and lower driver attentiveness due to the absence of opposing vehicles.

Meanwhile, classical physics tells us that a vehicle moving twice as fast has four times the destructive capacity, and the data bear this out. A 1997 report from the British Department of Transport titled Killing Speed and Saving Lives concluded that the risk of pedestrian death in a collision from a vehicle rises from 5 percent at 32 km/h to 45 percent at 48 km/h and a devastating 85 percent at 64 km/h.

Since we insist on designing our streets so that traffic can flow at 50-60 km/h, when it comes to pedestrian safety we're left with no alternative but to discourage people from walking through a variety of means both direct and implicit.

Then we argue that most people don't walk so we shouldn't bother investing in walkability, closing the loop and locking in a deadly pattern that has been failing us for decades.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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By CouldaWouldaShoulda (anonymous) | Posted April 11, 2012 at 14:31:50

Speaking of walking, how about this?

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By Undustrial (registered) - website | Posted April 12, 2012 at 09:18:35

Our pace of life doesn't afford us the luxury of walking. We spend too much time working to pay for our cars.

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By Emily Haines (anonymous) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 13:40:00 in reply to Comment 75873

Buy this car to drive to work.
Drive to work to pay for this car.

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By -Hammer- (registered) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 11:57:27 in reply to Comment 75873

People use cars to get to work because they can't find work within walking distance. Once again, another reason why urban density is needed and against further expansion of the suburbs. Good luck telling that to our city council though who is perpetually drunk on the short term income of development fees on the mountain.

Comment edited by -Hammer- on 2012-04-12 11:59:27

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By JM (registered) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 13:30:08 in reply to Comment 75879

Guilty - I purchased my home in an urban/walkable neighbourhood in the Concession Street area... however, I drive to Vaughan each day (where I could find a job!).

I try to keep the car parked though, once I get back home... its great to be able to walk to the corner store and such.

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By Conrad66 (registered) | Posted April 12, 2012 at 13:14:15

What do you call someone who takes there car to go around the block to the store... to lazzy walk and get some exersise to pet sake or bike .. and juste going to Tims

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