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Curb Enthusiasm — One Path to Walkable Towns

September 16, 2012

Sidewalks, once a staple of American suburbs, have become as rare and retro as drive-in movie theaters. This isn’t just a matter of street design aesthetics. The demise of sidewalks has made it increasingly difficult to walk around in suburban communities, whether for fitness, pleasure, doing errands or dining at a local restaurant.

For instance, the main road that leads to my subdivision-style neighborhood is narrow and winding — and motorists typically drive 10 miles over the speed limit while navigating it. So whenever I walk along this street, I hustle — facing the traffic so I can see oncoming vehicles — until I eventually reach the safe harbor of a sidewalk.

But the sidewalk doesn’t continue in one long ribbon leading downtown. Instead, it disappears for long stretches, reappears, and disappears again.

Needless to say, these are not pedestrian friendly conditions.

You don’t have to be an urban planner to realize that a community without a good network of sidewalks is one that encourages residents to drive everywhere — even to a grocery store, coffee shop or school that would otherwise be a 10- or 15-minute walk away. In other words, it’s a place designed for cars, not people.

A sidewalk-less town raises not only social and environmental issues, but also health concerns, especially at a time when one medical study after the next is underscoring the detrimental effects of sedentary lifestyles.

Research has linked sitting for long periods to a host of health problems, including obesity, high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol levels and higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease or cancer. Some of that sitting, of course, is done while we drive from one place to another in our communities.

Researchers have also documented just how little we walk these days. A study of pedometer-equipped Americans, for example, found they walked an average of 5,117 steps a day, compared to the 9,700 steps that Australian and Swiss citizens tread daily.

Although 5,000 steps equals about 2.5 miles, that’s not much, according to the scientists, who said  Americans would need to trek another 30 to 40 minutes daily to catch up with their Australian and Swiss counterparts.

Hoofing It in Your Hometown

The health benefits of residing in a walkable town are clear. People who live in neighborhoods with shops and other businesses within easy walking distance have a 35 percent lower risk for obesity, a study of nearly 11,000 Americans concluded.

There are also economic advantages for residents and municipal governments. America Walks, an organization that advocates for accessible and safe walking conditions in the U.S., sums it up:

Over the past 50 years development trends have created low-density suburbs and exurbs that require people to go further distances to satisfy basic needs and often make travel by foot impossible. Suburban subdivisions often lack sidewalks and feature multilane highways that cannot be safely crossed by foot.

Communities that develop according to smart-growth principles, which include walkable street networks, cost less for individuals to live in and cost less for local governments to administer.

Paving the Way to Walkability

So how can we make our communities more walkable? Why not start by reintroducing sidewalks to our streetscapes?

A Federal Highway Administration report details some other perks of sidewalks:

  • Children learn independence by having a safer place to travel
  • A good system of sidewalks may allow older pedestrians who no longer drive to walk to services and socialize in their community, while offering a continued independent lifestyle
  • Wide sidewalks can be gathering places in neighborhoods and business districts, and offer space for families and friends to walk and socialize together
  • Wide sidewalks in business communities offer an opportunity for trees, landscaping, and other amenities that create an inviting place for customers to shop and do business

I realize that new sidewalk construction has to be funded by someone — usually taxpayers and their  local governments. And in new housing developments, the homeowners typically cover or share that cost.

But urban planners say sidewalks and other pedestrian-friendly improvements pay for themselves in the long run. In fact, the more walkable a community is, the higher its property values.

It’s nice to know that a sidewalk system can spawn so many benefits. All I want, though, is to be able to stroll safely from my house to my favorite café. But I’d have to move either to another town or back in time several decades to make that possible.

What do you think? Do you have any ideas for making the suburbs more walkable?

 

© Janice Leary and My Point Exactly, 2010-2017. Unauthorized use of this material, including original photographs, without written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Janice Leary and My Point Exactly, with links to the original content.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2012 12:08 pm

    Great observations, and while we’re at it, let’s put in bike lanes–wide ones that allow for adult three-wheelers and multiple bike riders.

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  1. From Pedestrian-Intensive to Becoming Pedestrian-Friendly Miami Beach | West Avenue Corridor Neighborhood Association

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