A Walkable Life

I live in a city that allows me to walk anywhere I need to be. I will take a bus every few months, but usually I travel under my own power. I feel incredibly fortunate to have a lifestyle that has walking as a central feature. I don’t want to be held back by cars.

The health benefits of walking are hard to deny. Cutting the risk of getting a cold in half, reducing cancer rates, delaying dementia, and preventing diabetes are just some of the big positives of walking. Plus, it increases many factors in a healthy sex life.

There are also huge economic and social benefits from walking, and city planner Jeff Speck is urging that foot traffic be a primary measurement of a city’s health.

If they are to function properly, cities need to be planned by generalists, as they once were. Generalists understand that consolidating parks means that fewer people can walk to them. Generalists understand that infrastructure organized in service of big trucks is not always inviting to small people. And generalists, finally, are coming to understand that more lanes usually just lead to more traffic.

Most significantly, generalists — such as planners and, one hopes, mayors — ask the big-picture questions that are so often forgotten among the day-to-day shuffle of city governance. Questions like: What kind of city will help us thrive economically? What kind of city will keep our citizens not just safe, but healthy? What kind of city will be sustainable for generations to come?

These three issues — wealth, health, and sustainability — are, not coincidentally, the three principal arguments for making our cities more walkable.

Jeff’s book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time explores how civic planning based around walking can improve cities and in the article “What Makes a Great City: A General Theory of WalkabilityMaria Popova provides a solid introduction to the ideas in the book.

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. Each of these qualities is essential an none alone is sufficient. Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into ‘outdoor living rooms,’ in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound.

Another piece that sheds light on Jeff’s approach is “Foot forward: Walkability is the key to fixing cities” from Grist.

While I can walk anywhere, my city has been negligent in promoting walking. Unnecessary, harmful traffic has been a problem in Halifax for a long while. Those in charge of the city have widened roads instead of working to encourage alternatives to cars and failed to create crossings on roads that properly accommodate people who are on foot. This has endangered the lives of pedestrians, made for less pleasant streets and held back the city from flourishing. Hopefully, we can change leadership and create a better place to live.

Other places have been conceived as car-free communities, and there’s a lot we can take away from those models. Piscataquis Village in Maine is a community seeking investment to build a town that has streets too narrow for cars to travel upon them. The aim is to promote lifestyles that include walking and and the many benefits of being carless.

This style of community enhances face to face contact and conviviality between neighbors, and foot traffic replacing car traffic makes for a safer environment for children.

A development which features a connecting network of arcaded, covered sidewalks is a boon for everyone, considering our Maine climate, and is especially beneficial to the elderly and mobility impaired.

It’s not necessary to go to the extremes of Piscataquis Village, but movements to prioritize walking are growing.

Statistics indicate that there is a trend away from large houses and toward small homes in walkable places. In the article “Most Americans Want a Walkable Neighborhood, Not a Big House” from last year, Nona Willis Aronowitz suggested that the healthiest and most desired places to live are coming closer together.

According to a new survey, more than three quarters of us consider having sidewalks and places to take a walk one of our top priorities when deciding where to live. Six in 10 people also said they would sacrifice a bigger house to live in a neighborhood that featured a mix of houses, stores, and businesses within an easy walk.

Regardless of our financial situation, living in walkable areas is just better for us. There have been numerous studies concluding that suburban and rural lifestyles are actually less healthy than cities, while New York City, the mother of all walking cities, enjoys a record-high life expectancy. Urban planners are already trying to figure out ways to design suburbs that necessitate less driving. Things that are good for us all too often require a bit of sacrifice. But in this case, our ideal and our fate are perfectly in line.

Nona also expanded on New York City’s life expectancy advantages in the article “The Good (City) Life: Why New York’s Life Expectancy Is the Highest in the Nation“, concluding that population density and walkability are two vital social goods.

First, we don’t spend our entire lives in cars. We walk everywhere. With narrow streets, an abundance of stores, and a dearth of parking, the city is practically designed to make us walk. Before we get on the subway, we walk there, and after we arrive at our stop, we climb numerous flights of stairs. We also walk faster than the average American; in a recent study, New Yorkers were ranked as the fastest pedestrians in the country. To some, that’s a sign that we’re rude and obnoxious. To scientists, it’s a sign we’re going to live longer.

Our old people also have it much better than the elderly in bucolic settings. The essentials—food, medicine, laundromats, parks—are usually mere blocks from their homes. The hospital is likely a shorter distance away, too. High population density means a plethora of neighbors who can look after each other. When people live on top of each other, the likelihood of social isolation plummets—and the age of death rises.

Another thing to consider when opting out of a car-based society is the relative value of being connected to others and the internet instead of spending time and money driving. The article “High gas prices? Whatevs — my phone gets me where I want to go” from Grist points to a growing shift in priorities away from cars and toward smart phones.

What’s caused the change? For starters, driving has lost its cool with young Americans, who frankly have better things to do than sit behind the wheel of a tin can lodged in gridlock. And then there are gas prices that are expected to top $4.25 a gallon by April.

But there’s something else, too: If you’re not hung up on owning your own car, your phone can lead you to better, and far cheaper, ways to get around. And I don’t mean calling a friend to bum a ride.

Some of this stuff, you’ve already heard about: Google Transit, which is wired into many smartphones, makes it easy to plan a trip by bus or train. In some cities, GPS-enabled apps like Nextbus actually track transit in real time, so you know if your ride is running ahead of or behind schedule. Apps like Cabulous and Taxi Magic make calling a cab a no-brainer. Add to that a long list of local transportation apps that make it easy to get around without a car.

There are countless factors in favour of building walkable cities and taking up a walking lifestyle. I plan to continue to have my life enriched by walking.

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