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Putting America Back on its Feet

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Even as our recent report, Transportation and the New Generation, continued to attract attention and spark public debate last week (check out the Media Center for some of the highlights), the online magazine Slate was running a four-part series on the lost art of walking in America.

The report by Tom Vanderbilt is a fascinating read – an in-depth exploration of a mode of transportation that is usually taken for granted. The series doesn’t focus specifically on trends in walking among youth, which Transportation and the New Generation suggests is on the rise. But it does strike a couple of the same themes that arose in that report, specifically:

  • The impact of technology – In Transportation for a New Generation we highlighted how technology is creating new transportation options (such as car-sharing and bike-sharing) and making existing alternatives such as public transportation easier to use. But we forgot all about WalkScore, the website that quantifies the “walkability” of neighborhoods around the country based on their proximity to amenities such as stores, banks, parks and restaurants. The old business axiom states that you can’t manage what you don’t measure, and WalkScore now enables would-be homebuyers or renters to make informed choices about housing locations that take walkability into account. Analyst Joe Cortright has documented (PDF) that home values increase by $500 to $3,000 in most markets for every additional point on WalkScore’s 100-point scale – strengthening the financial case for building new developments in walkable areas.
  • The historic marginalization of non-driving alternatives – My colleague Elizabeth Ridlington once shared the story of traveling to Altoona, Pa., for a bicycle race (the world famous “Tour de Toona”) and attempting to walk from her downtown hotel to a restaurant only to find “NO PEDESTRIANS” signs blocking her way at each of the intersections she was trying to navigate. It’s a story that stuck with me as an example of how pedestrians have been pushed to the margins in the quest to speed motorists ever more quickly on their way. Vanderbilt’s piece shares another anecdote that was new to me: the story of how design standards shifted from placing a buffer of trees between highways and sidewalks (providing comfort to pedestrians) to putting sidewalks directly alongside busy highways (reducing the potential for vehicle-tree collisions but making walking much less pleasant and far more dangerous). In this context, efforts to create just a little bit of space for pedestrians and bicyclists on our roads are far from symptoms of a War on Cars – rather, they are the least we can do to bring balance to a transportation system that has long been tilted far out of balance.

Walking tends to get short shrift in policy discussions. As Vanderbilt’s piece notes, pro-walking advocacy groups are few and far between – walking is something that everyone does but that few people identify with passionately. But walking is an important transportation option in its own right, and one that can bring a range of quality of life benefits, from reduced obesity to a greater sense of community to the simple pleasure of being able to take the air on a post-dinner stroll.

As our recent report on youth transportation trends demonstrates, the time has come for a fundamental reconsideration of our transportation policies and investment priorities. Increasing the attention we pay toward the needs of walkers is just one of the many changes that can help America’s transportation system meet the needs of the 21st century.