August 7, 2005

Tilting Too Far To The Automobile

When places are designed solely for the automobile, they become unpleasant and unappealing at best for pedestrians - but usually, they also become unsafe. That makes it even less likely people will walk, making it less likely drivers even think to watch out for pedestrians, making walking even more unsafe ... and the spiral continues, until you rarely see people out on foot at all.

My walking buddy at work and I have numerous examples of narrowly avoiding being hit by drivers who are simply not looking for pedestrians, even in clearly marked, brightly painted crosswalks. The average driver in Framingham waiting to make a right turn, will only look to his/her left to check for oncoming cars - even if it's an intersection with a crosswalk. Many do not also look right to see if a pedestrian has appeared -- one with the right of way -- because it doesn't occur to them that they have to share the roads with walkers.

The Globe has an editorial today about someone waiting for an oil change, seeing a Dunkin Donuts kiosk within walking distance, but being turned away from the "drive-up window" because they weren't in a vehicle. How sad is that? A business in a neighborhood where you can't even buy something unless you drive there.

As the Globe notes: "Today, walking is regarded as an exercise that one does in a designated space -- the gym treadmill, the park, the sidewalk -- rather than as a natural movement that is far more healthy than gripping a steering wheel."

Luckily, we can still drive to a few places still designed for walking - Concord's town center, much of downtown Boston (Newbury Street/Back Bay, Beacon Hill, North End), Waltham's Moody Street and so on. But unless you live in a city center, chances are you aren't walking to get anywhere, because your neighborhood, including neighborhood stores if there are any - aren't designed for it. Who but the most dedicated of walkers wants to cross a sea of asphalt with traffic zooming every which way?

I grew up in a suburb of New York, and spent my childhood walking to friends' houses, and having my mom send me out for milk, bread, lunch meat and other groceries. Yet it was a pefectly drivable neighborhood with plenty of free, easily accessible parking. Cars and pedestrians could share space in relative harmony. Even the "strip malls" were designed differently, giving equal weight to walker-friendly entrances as well as available parking. It IS possible. If planners bother thinking at all about pedestrians anymore.

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