Thinking with our feet.

Author:Bradshaw, Chris
Position::Understanding Walkability - Viewpoint essay

For the past year, US public attention has been focused on the global scale: global warming, the instability of large foreign oil suppliers, and the sudden rise in gas prices, a belated adjustment to Hubbert's Peak. The recent US housing bust seems to be partly fed by Americans' lust for living in the "paradise" of car-dependent neighborhoods.

But the focus should also be on the local scale, in true environmental fashion, the scale where we walk. Our "think globally, act locally" slogan might need to change to "talk globally, walk locally." We need to use our feet to reduce our footprint.

Mankind got to this point in our evolution relying on our two feet and our superior intelligence. Today our intelligence has invented a means of transportation that we both over-use and under-utilize. By that, I mean we drive more than we must, and even with all that driving, we under-utilize the cars we depend on.

Scale and "location efficiency"

The number-one reason walking is in decline is the embrace of the car and our society's decision to treat it as a private consumer product, although driven on a public network. The number-one reason people can't reverse that dependency and go back to more walking is that most of the built form that has been constructed in the last three-quarters of a century was designed with the assumption that people had their own family car, and more recently, their own personal car. What we have is sprawl: more land per person, less clustering of services, deeper property setbacks.

And even the town centers constructed before the arrival of car ubiquity have lost their walkability. Corner stores, the stand-alone commercial hubs of streets, have mostly disappeared. Main streets have lost their basic services to big-box formats further away, and the businesses remaining have cannibalized their neighbors to get more parking, leaving wounds in the continuous streetfronts. Also lost are the area's frequent transit and middle/working class customer base. Most of all, those remaining business have a larger-scale focus; they assume that their customers come by car, and that the other sidewalk denizens are ne'er-do-wells. So, they don't keep displays refreshed, pick up litter outside their en trance, quickly deal with graffiti, or relate proactively with city hall. The few main streets that have bounced back are dominated by boutiques and restaurants, more in number and higher in price than the walk-in locals can or will support.

This commercial spurning of the neighborhood scale is matched by governments and other service industries for their...

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