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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Sprawl Walk

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Tom Springer tells us why going for a walk in some of America’s newest communities can be dangerous to your health.


TOOMEY: Walking, is the oldest, and cheapest, form of transportation. But as commentator Tom Springer explains, in many new communities, walking can be a difficult and dangerous activity.

SPRINGER: Nothing quite beats a good, long walk as a way to refresh the body and rejuvenate the senses. Ralph Waldo Emerson once described walking as "gymnastics for the mind". Søren Kierkegaard said that he knew of no thought so burdensome that one can not walk away from it. Back when these deep thinkers went for a stroll, most of the world's mass transit system still had hay and oats for breakfast. But in today's suburban communities, walking can be a difficult, and downright dangerous, activity.

Consider this frightening statistic from the Mean Streets 2000 report, which is put out by a public transportation advocacy group. In the United States, the rate of pedestrian death is 14 times higher than in some European countries. If you've driven in France or Italy, then you know that European drivers are certainly not 14 times more careful and law abiding than American drivers. In Europe, and in many older U.S. cities, what protects pedestrians is the physical layout of their man-made environment.

Before World War II, city planners thought it was normal, and necessary, for people in urban areas to work, worship, and go to school within a five minute walk of home. They built streets and sidewalks on a grid pattern, which allows for effective traffic control and good pedestrian visibility. But today, because of car-friendly zoning, our new suburbs are separated into separate pods, which are connected by high speed, high traffic roadways.

The office park is here, the mall is over there, and the new school is usually way out on the edge of town. The only safe and sane way to get around is by automobile. At this very moment, you may be driving down a suburban boulevard. Do you see a decent sidewalk system, or an adequate number of crosswalks? Chances are, you don't. It's not uncommon for crosswalks to be a half mile apart, which leaves pedestrians little choice but to dash, unprotected, across wide and busy streets.

Tragically, that's exactly how 59% of all pedestrian deaths occur. But if there's any good news about suburban sprawl it's this: new communities are being planned and built every day, and there's no reason why zoning codes and master plans must always favor cars over people. Our land use policies are man-made regulations, they are not immutable laws of the universe. In recent year, enlightened developers from Maryland to Oregon have built dozens of new and walkable communities. Their amenities include more crosswalks and sidewalks, as well as small stores and restaurants that people can walk and ride their bikes to. And people are paying a premium to live in such places. They like the idea of burning calories while they run errands or commute to work.

To make cities safe and convenient for pedestrians, we don't need to ban automobiles, we just need to keep them in their proper place. And sometimes, the best place of all is in the garage.

TOOMEY: Commentator Tom Springer is a freelance writer from Three Rivers, Michigan. He comes to us via the Great Lakes Radio Consortium.



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