As a traveling journalist, I have walked dozens of cities. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and Rome, the streets of forgotten small towns in the American South. I’ve walked exciting historic corridors and empty suburban wastelands. I’ve walked through ghettos, homeless encampments, busy intersections and luxurious, mansion-lined residential streets.
With every walk, I’ve discovered new layers, textures and details to the city. Without the comfort, protection and ease of the automobile, I’ve experienced these places more authentically. Some were dangerous, forcing me onto unsafe infrastructure or pitting me against aggressive drivers. Others were so delightfully designed at human scale that I could have wept. Some walks left me heavy-hearted and disappointed. Other walks ended with new discoveries and a full heart.
I’m now living temporarily in a small Texas city. I walk here too and try to encourage my friends to do the same. Yet while many of us would agree that walkability makes sense for countless reasons, few of us actually walk the cities where we live. Why? Because it sucks. Here are five reasons why.
#1. Walking would be a waste of time
The reality is, as much as I adore walking, it makes zero sense for me to “walk my life.” Like most American cities built after the 1900’s, Waco has been designed in a sprawled-out fashion, with buildings separated by type. Homes and common businesses (café’s, laundromat, post office, library, etc.) do not exist close together. Consequently, the places I frequent the most are too far apart from where I live and too far apart from each other. This is common in most North American cities thanks to a combination of Federal housing policy, single-use zoning, the influence of the automobile lobby and an over-reaction to Industrialism. So don’t be hard on yourself. Walking your city sucks because everything is too far apart and it would be a waste of time.
#2. Walking around our cities feels weird
When I walk around Waco, I feel overexposed, vulnerable and a little silly. There I go, little urban me, sporting sunglasses and bluetooth earphones, carrying all my bags and jaywalking like a pro. But no matter how confident I feel about my skills as an urban walker, the design of most streets tells me that I’m out of place.
Sure, there’s a sidewalk, but does anyone actually belong on a sidewalk next to a busy road full of speeding cars? Yes, there’s a cross-walk here, but with four lanes of traffic gunning for the intersection, do pedestrians really belong? Technically, this sidewalk can carry me to my destination, but with no trees or shops, with no other pedestrians, with all of the signs designed to be seen by drivers not walkers and with the need to constantly negotiate with cars moving in and out of busy driveways, the sidewalk feels more like an afterthought than an actual means of mobility.
If you’ve ever tried to walk your city and decided to never do it again because of how odd and out of place you felt, I sympathize. Walking most North American cities suck because they make us feel vulnerable and awkward.
#3. Walking isn’t safe
In many American cities, walkable infrastructure is unsafe, incomplete or unimaginative. For example, there are plenty of streets here in Waco where the sidewalks disappear suddenly, shoving pedestrians into the street alongside traffic. I’ve been forced into this situation and have seen parents with child-carrying strollers forced into it too. Other sidewalks are lumpy, extremely narrow or overgrown with grass.
Other safety issues abound. Wide lanes encourage fast driving. Cars are allowed to turn right on pedestrian crosswalks when pedestrians have the walking signal. Because drivers aren’t used to expecting walkers, drivers are easily frustrated by walkers (and bikers). People living in car-dominated cultures expect to be able to get around as fast and as conveniently as possible. We are not expected to share the road with other forms of transit.
It’s this set of expectations that makes walking so scary. We avoid walking because who wants to have to constantly barter with an irritated driver sitting behind the wheel of a 2,500-ton machine?
#4. Walking has unspoken cultural stigmas
Similar to the stigma in some cities around biking (as only for poor people), walking around the city comes with certain stigmas too. City-walkers are perceived as either too poor to own a car or as too rich. After all, it’s mainly wealthier citizens who can afford to live in the “new urbanist” walkable developments popping up around the country.
Both situations come with unwanted assumptions and conclusions, both of which we would probably rather avoid. So we avoid walking in unwalkable places because we don’t want to seem out of place. We don’t want to be perceived as vulnerable, helpless poor or elitist; we’d rather fit in.
#5. Walking our cities just isn’t pleasant
One of my favorite pastimes as a former New Yorker was the long, summer night walk. I would leave work, step into the street and begin walking towards home. Originally planning to get onto the subway, I would find myself seduced by the magic of the city, by the abundance of interesting people wearing interesting outfits, doing interesting things. I would be enchanted by the variety of scenes playing out: couples on a romantic date outside, skateboarders practicing their tricks, street performers serenading strangers for petty cash, men playing chess at Union Square.
Block after block, I was pulled into what Jane Jacobs called the “ballet of the streets,” and I couldn’t pull myself away. Up my spine flowed an indescribable kind of joy. Despite the heat, the crowds, the smelliness…I would find happiness here, rooted in that indescribable feeling that happens when a place contains beauty, intrigue and unplanned, spontaneous harmony. Sometimes these walks did end with a descent into the subway (where the magic continued), but many times I found myself seduced into a 45-minute walk and before I knew it, I was home.
This magic is at the heart of walkable places. People walk in cities because they want to be in beautiful, sociable environments that inspire and seduce them, that draw their attention out of themselves and onto humanity. People walk because they want to be in an environment that doesn’t demand anything of them but presence. “Just be here,” a well-designed street says, without making demands of us.
But most American cities miss this point. Engineers seem to think that plopping a sidewalk down on a street makes it walkable, failing to realize that in order to be walkable, streets must be hospitable, they must be beautiful. In focusing on bare function, they miss the point entirely, and so…we don’t walk.
What can we say, the brain loves beauty?
As much as my friends agree with the benefits of walking and adore walkable cities around the world, few of us will actually conduct our weekly errands on foot. We are trapped in this decades-old experiment of car-dependency and it’s hard to break out. It’s hard to walk lonely, treeless streets; it’s undesirable to negotiate with speed-thirsty drivers. It’s uncomfortable to adopt a type of mobility that many see as pitiable and/or elitist.
So we avoid it.