Walking in American cities used to not only be permissible, but expected. Somewhere along the line, street design started to favor the automobile over the pedestrian - but with good design, we can bring walking back.

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Crosswalks and push-buttons don't make walking safer when streets are designed like highways (photo by Andy Boenau)

Crosswalks and push-buttons don’t make walking safer when streets are designed like highways (photo by Andy Boenau)

Why did we stop walking? Walking in American cities used to not only be permissible, but expected. In the early 20th century, there was no need for politicking about walkability initiatives in urban environments. The common person could articulate that city streets were home to a wide range of activity, including but not limited to automobile traffic.

At CNU20, Eric Dumbaugh and Peter Norton taught a captivating history lesson about the dawn of the motor age in American cities. “Why did we stop walking and how do we start again?” Walkability encompasses far more than economic development, modal choice, or health and wellness. To reinforce the gravity of the topic, Dumbaugh began the session with a summary of Raquel Nelson.

In 2011, Ms. Nelson crossed a busy street with her 3 young children. Her 4-year old son A.J. was killed trying to follow his sister across the street. The driver was eventually caught and spent 6 months in jail. Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide and faced the possibility of 3 years in jail. The Washington Post published an opinion piece in August 2011 that provides a more detailed summary. I do not intend to dwell on the Raquel Nelson case other than to underscore the point made by Dumbaugh and Norton: in recent years bias is given to motor vehicles over pedestrians.

But there is light at the end of the tunnel. Most state governments have policies or resolutions underscoring the importance of pedestrian mobility. But what’s policy without action? And what action can occur without taking private property?

The public right-of-way is often sufficiently wide to trim excess lane widths and unnecessary turn lanes in order to install basic sidewalks and intersection crosswalk treatments. Suddenly a community talks of landscaping, street furniture, human-scale street lighting, adequate bus shelters. Aha! Multimodal improvements! Neighbors become mildly optimistic that meaningful change can actually occur. That maybe, just maybe the street that had been taken from people would accommodate the most fundamental mode of travel. Walking.

Why did we stop walking? One reason is poor street design. How can we start walking again? One way is good street design. Transport networks designed to accommodate people, whether they’re traveling with the power of a diesel engine or their own two feet.

What are your local public works or transportation departments doing to accommodate walking?