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America's Pedestrian Problem
April 13, 2012 7:24 AM   Subscribe

Tom Vanderbilt on walking in America, in four parts: The Crisis in American Walking, Sidewalk Science, What's Your Walk Score?, and Learning to Walk. (Previously on jaywalking and on cities for people.)
posted by parudox (92 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
“Walking’s not something that people rally around — it’s very pedestrian.”

Puns. Never apologize, never explain.
posted by Fizz at 7:30 AM on April 13, 2012 [10 favorites]


I used to be pretty skeptical about walking, but this heartwrenching PSA really changed my mind.
posted by theodolite at 7:34 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


In other words, not to be on a horse, flying or otherwise, was to be utterly unremarkable and mundane. To this day, Ronkin was intimating, the word pedestrian bears not only that slightly alien whiff, but the scars of condescension.

In America it might be noted, in all fairness to the condescension of drivers, pedestrians are also more likely to end up with just scars.
posted by three blind mice at 7:35 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh my, that picture with the school bus is so sad. The girl is driven from her house to the end of the driveway, where the bus picks her up.
posted by headnsouth at 7:38 AM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


Walking, like learning how to stretch, to run, and to fall, are one of the essential skills that should be taught in physical education from kindergarten, all the way up through high school. Instead we get competitive sports and our joints pay the price in our older age.

That said, much like the piper we'll be paying, we in the U.S. have very long strolls ahead of us when the oil runs out. Maybe we'll learn proper technique then.
posted by clarknova at 7:43 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a big proponent of walking - I usually walk the 3 or so miles from my office to my apartment every evening - but I think a lot of this line of thinking is, quite frankly, designed to make Slate's predominantly urban liberal audience feel superior to the suburbanized rubes in flyover country.

Why? Because there's plenty of evidence that people do, in fact, want to live in walkable areas. On a per-square-foot basis, the most expensive real estate in the country is in walkable, urban areas like San Francisco, New York, Boston and DC, indicating that demand for such areas far outstrips supply, and it's only getting worse. In Arlington, VA (DC suburb), for instance, a thin strip of urbanism features downright Manhattan-like rents; 1-bedroom apartments start at $2000-$2500. (2-3 years ago, rents hovered in the $1500 range)

But, for a variety of reasons, we as a country refuse to allow more people access to areas like these. And the selfsame folks who are likely scoffing at the rubes are at least partially to blame, as historic preservation and "quality of life" complaints from urban homeowners slows the pace of developers' efforts to capture that demand. Complaints about new buildings not "fitting into" the neighborhood, protests over high-rise apartment buildings, etc. serve, functionally, to limit walkable areas to those who can afford the astronomical rents.

It's a really frustrating equilibrium; liberals who normally espouse equality of access to public goods (in this case, walkable areas, access to transit, etc.) embrace policies with a seemingly liberal veneer (anti-developer) that in fact entrench their own privilege at the expense of others.
posted by downing street memo at 7:49 AM on April 13, 2012 [20 favorites]


I walked five miles yesterday. I saw at least a few hundred other people who were out walking on a chilly weekday evening. But my neighborhood has short tree-lined blocks with small businesses on every corner, and a foresty park with a 2-mile trail along a creek.

Unfortunately I work in a giant building in the suburbs with no sidewalks -- or, for that matter, any place to walk to. I sometimes take a lunch break in the middle of the day and walk along the shoulder of a 40-mph road, but people look at me like I'm crazy. It blows my mind that people pay more to live in such places.
posted by miyabo at 7:50 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


headnsouth: "Oh my, that picture with the school bus is so sad. The girl is driven from her house to the end of the driveway, where the bus picks her up."

I lived in a condo complex that had a central spot where the school buses picked up and dropped off kids and everyday I'd see parents drive their kids down to that bus stop and then sit in the car until the bus came so the kid didn't have to stand in the cold. Proud to say that my kid walked over there and stood in the cold.
posted by octothorpe at 7:51 AM on April 13, 2012


I lived in a condo complex that had a central spot where the school buses picked up and dropped off kids and everyday I'd see parents drive their kids down to that bus stop and then sit in the car until the bus came so the kid didn't have to stand in the cold. Proud to say that my kid walked over there and stood in the cold.

Standing in the cold is good for you. It builds character. Makes the blood stronger. Something, something..get off my lawn, kids these days.

Seriously, that picture and caption depresses the fuck out of me.
posted by Fizz at 7:53 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


But, for a variety of reasons, we as a country refuse to allow more people access to areas like these

Cite please...or at least elaborate beyond the market forces you've outlined.

My experience is actually that while urbanism is increasingly hip, it's only marginally more popular. There's been minor forces from demography, federal spending and energy prices that have made Cities more attractive economically. But in terms of people's unwillingness to give up their cars, their ethnocentrism and their concerns about family formation, I haven't seen the shift except in news articles.

(I say this as a urban planner in the Boston metro area, my sample couldn't get any more ripe for this argument, but still...)
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 7:57 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


downing street memo: Complaints about new buildings not "fitting into" the neighborhood, protests over high-rise apartment buildings, etc. serve, functionally, to limit walkable areas to those who can afford the astronomical rents.

It's also true though that developers, like those who have designed the new housing areas outside of the walkable section of Arlington, have designed entire areas with useless sidewalks and limited or no access to mixed use developments where they might want to walk to. Sidewalks will trail off into the sides of highways. Schools are cut off from side streets. If you get outside of the slightly-older-core of Bethesda, you run into the exact same problem. I've walked on River Road, since it's technically a bus route; it is terrifying and dangerous. The problem isn't that cities have some stranglehold on urbanization and design, it's that more recent developments often have deliberately not incorporated sidewalks, safe pedestrian areas, and most importantly, walkable links to other areas outside of their control. Avenel has great walking paths, but you can't easily walk to Bethesda or even really Potomac from inside.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:58 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I've walked on River Road, since it's technically a bus route; it is terrifying and dangerous.

I love walking. My wife and I frequently walk three or more miles directly down a Metro route instead of just taking the train. Walking on River Road, though? Yikes.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:00 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Why? Because there's plenty of evidence that people do, in fact, want to live in walkable areas.

Also the article makes an excellent point that even people who do live in walkable areas often, in fact, do not walk very often. I walk two miles to get to work, in the suburbs, on a gorgeous (if dangerous) set of streets that are very safe from the crime perspective. This fact is mind-boggling to my co-workers and on-campus students. They are absolutely astounded that I walk to work, despite it being an extremely unremarkable length. To them, that same walk requires: the campus bus, and/or the regional train.
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:02 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cite please...or at least elaborate beyond the market forces you've outlined.

Why wouldn't prices tell the tale? Walkability, both within and across urban areas, is correlated with higher real estate prices. More people want to live in these places than there are places to live.

I'd be willing to entertain other regional factors for price spikes (i.e. strength of government employment in DC, tech money in SF) but it holds true within urban areas, as well.
posted by downing street memo at 8:05 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Re: Bethesda -- yeah. It has some beautiful walking paths through NIH, but after 9/11 the fence went up and now pedestrians get to smell the exhaust from stalled Wisconsin Ave. traffic.

BTW, WalkScore has a new algorithm (at least new for me). My little town, which seems designed by ambulatory alcoholics, does a lot better under the new system.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:07 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Why? Because there's plenty of evidence that people do, in fact, want to live in walkable areas.

Some people do, many people don't. I work and live in the city now but most of my co-workers commute from the 'burbs and do so because they really don't want to live in walkable areas. I've known quite a few people who have said that they'd never live anywhere with sidewalks.
posted by octothorpe at 8:10 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


Oh, I might add around here houses in the 'burbs are generally more expensive than those in the city so they're paying a premium to live without sidewalks.
posted by octothorpe at 8:13 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Complaints about new buildings not "fitting into" the neighborhood, protests over high-rise apartment buildings, etc. serve, functionally, to limit walkable areas to those who can afford the astronomical rents.

High-rise buildings can make streets less conducive to pedestrian life through poor street interaction, even though they do bring more people. Too often "high-rise" still means a tall building surrounded by lots of empty space and parking. There are reasonable, non-NIMBY arguments against preferring sporadic very tall buildings everywhere (20+ storeys) rather than more moderate (6-10 storey) ones more uniformly. Though it definitely depends on the context (Manhattan is not Portland), and on what your very tall buildings do at the first several levels (e.g. podium style towers in Vancouver).

That said, there are many voices now arguing for lifting the ridiculous density restrictions and the minimum parking requirements that plague so many central parts of American cities. E.g. Matt Yglesias (on Slate, in fact), Ryan Avent, Market Urbanism, and others.
posted by parudox at 8:18 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Previously on Metafilter: The Criminalization of Walking

Also previously: Mean Streets, by Will Short, with an excellent takedown in the comments.

Also previously: On the Boradway Pedestrian Mall

Also previously: Walk Score

An example of a street redesign in LA based on an approach from the Netherlands (from LA Streetsblog)

A TedxManitoba talk entitled: Confessions of a Former Sprawl Addict

That's So Pedestrian, The Pedestrian Mall Still Succeeds in the American College Town, Urban Design Newsletter, Summer 2011

Guess what I did yesterday
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:20 AM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


minimum parking requirements

Donald Shoup 'has extensively studied parking as a key link between transportation and land use, with important consequences for cities, the economy, and the environment', (previously and previously-er on MeFi)
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:32 AM on April 13, 2012


Oh my, that picture with the school bus is so sad. The girl is driven from her house to the end of the driveway, where the bus picks her up.
There's a mom in my neighborhood who drives her kid to the bus stop. I know this because my daughter and I walk past them as they're getting in the car in the mornings, and then we all get the the bus stop at the exact same time.
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 8:34 AM on April 13, 2012 [5 favorites]


My husband regularly walks home from work (he generally takes the bus to work; we're a one-car family) and he has people assume his car has broken down every time he does it. And we're in Austin, a relatively walkable city, at least in the central core.

We're not out in the burbs either, where it's too dangerous to walk unless you drive somewhere to do it. Just not downtown.
posted by immlass at 8:43 AM on April 13, 2012


I talked a little about the weird political paradox in urban environments above but it's probably worth examining further.

Liberals like cities and (claim to) believe in equal access to the Good Shit of society. But in almost every case, neighborhood groups (overwhelmingly run by liberals) put barrier after barrier in the way of other people who want access to the Good Shit they enjoy, and couch their objections in the frame of liberalism (greedy developers, "character" of neighborhoods, etc.) Seriously, go to any neighborhood blog, make a comment about wanting denser development, and watch all the justifications fly, it's like a script folks are reading from.

You'd expect conservatives, on the other hand, to applaud private enterprise taking advantage of the desire to live in walkable areas by building more housing around them, and you'd think they'd push for regulations - their perennial boogeymen - to be relaxed to allow greater flexibility in housing supply. But conservatives are often the first to enforce strict zoning in the suburbs that protects a way of life they find culturally appealing, and they often denounce efforts to relax zoning as a liberal plot to move everyone into the cities.

This is basically a case, on both sides, of entrenched interests (homeowners, older people, by and large) extracting high rents from non-entrenched interests (renters, younger people). But its a weird dynamic where both ideological groups are ignoring first-principle level beliefs they claim to hold.
posted by downing street memo at 8:43 AM on April 13, 2012 [9 favorites]


Why wouldn't prices tell the tale? Walkability, both within and across urban areas, is correlated with higher real estate prices. More people want to live in these places than there are places to live.

The correlation is there, but it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with people *preferring* to walk or *preferring* to live in the city. People balance transportation cost and rent. That's the point of a city. Place things close together so it's efficient to move stuff around. That increases demand for land and drives up prices. Walkability is associated with lower transportation costs, and thus is linked to higher rent. That's always been the case.

That doesn't mean people prefer to walk. Quite the contrary, for hundreds (or thousands) of years rich people have been commuting by carriage to their big estates in the country. Then all of a sudden in the postwar years you drop the price of transportation by building out the freeways. People leave cities in droves because it's possible for everyone to commute farther and access cheaper land. At no point during that process was suburban real estate more expensive than prime urban real estate though, even though the vast majority of people were clearly expressing a preference for suburban living.

I'm not saying walking is bad (I walk 35 miles a week), but it's a stretch to say that average people would prefer manhattan to the suburbs.
posted by pjaust at 8:48 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Seriously, go to any neighborhood blog, make a comment about wanting denser development, and watch all the justifications fly, it's like a script folks are reading from.

If the DC area neighborhood blogs are any indication, the only motivations that drive anyone are racism and desire for more cupcake places. Naturally, they oppose denser development, since those new residents might be black and/or not run cupcake bakeries.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:50 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


What if a black person wants to open up a cupcake bakery?
posted by dinty_moore at 8:52 AM on April 13, 2012


What if a black person wants to open up a cupcake bakery?

I don't know, but you can be sure I'll read every comment in that Prince of Petworth thread.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 8:53 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying walking is bad (I walk 35 miles a week), but it's a stretch to say that average people would prefer manhattan to the suburbs.

I agree, but doesn't the fact that urban real estate prices are rising relative to suburban/exurban/rural ones indicate that preferences are shifting?
posted by downing street memo at 8:58 AM on April 13, 2012


What if a black person wants to open up a cupcake bakery?

Warren Brown, the owner of CakeLove, actually is black. And his cupcake shop, with its mysteriously fussy icing, has been a huge boon for the continuing redevelopment and gentrification of U Street. Cupcakes for all!
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:59 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


its a weird dynamic where both ideological groups are ignoring first-principle level beliefs they claim to hold

It's almost like the their interests align not by partisan ideology, but by...class? SO STRANGE!

I was trying to be a little more politique above, but much of what I see in your so called 'entrenched interests' at the municipal level is nothing more than the larger narrative of 'got mine, fuck you'. The tactics and rhetoric are entirely a show.

On the other hand, this is a totally separate issue from the actual demand for urbanism...
posted by Reasonably Everything Happens at 9:04 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think there's a distinction between walkability and having walking destinations. My neighborhood is extremely walkable; there are sidewalks and crosswalks everywhere, it's super safe, and there are lots of parks and green space. Great city planning has ensured that. But there aren't a ton of local businesses because it's pretty poor and no one has any money to spend on things like dining out or cupcakes.

I don't think everywhere in the country will suddenly get tons of small local businesses. That's too much to hope for. But local governments can definitely ensure that it's pleasant to go outside and take a walk, even if the end goal isn't to buy things.
posted by miyabo at 9:04 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree, but doesn't the fact that urban real estate prices are rising relative to suburban/exurban/rural ones indicate that preferences are shifting?

I would agree that preferences are shifting, but I don't think it's necessarily to a huge degree. I also wouldn't be surprised if age/place in life doesn't have a huge influence on where people want to live. Young, urban, childless, you want to be in a dense area, but there's a reason lots of people move to the suburbs when they start a family - that's what family living means for lots of folks.

I think Vanderbilt makes a good point about pedestrians being too "pedestrian". I spend a lot of time talking to transportation people and bike enthusiasts, and really, pedestrians are the lowest rung on the food chain. It makes sense, but it's just not as sexy as bicycle advocacy for the most part.

Another wrinkle I find interesting is how people perceive walking (and biking) as leisure activities/hobbies, rather than modes of transportation. This is something that has been seen in the National Household Travel Survey.
posted by kendrak at 9:05 AM on April 13, 2012


Bethesda. Sigh. On one hand there's that downtown-ish core area south of the Metro station. The restaurants are mostly blandified knock-offs of places in DC, but still. There's some really nice bike paths: the Capital Crescent, the Trolley trail.

On the other hand, there's a brutalist parking structure on every block. Walking or biking along any of the non-residential streets outside of that core - Wisconsin, Arlington Road, Old Georgetown, River Road - is pure misery.

Some say its a model of good urban planning. Sometimes it feels more like a zoo of good urban planning.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 9:06 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


downing street memo don't forget that a lot of them send their kids to private schools as well. Having their granola and eating it too. After all, city schools suck, and city kids have all those ... problems.
posted by headnsouth at 9:09 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of the biggest things city governments can do without massive NIMBY push back is to rethink their central business districts. Those same places in the middle of the city where half a century ago they pushed out the residents and demolished whole blocks to put up highways, parking lots, and office towers. Open up those parking lots for mixed-use residential development, and let people live there and walk to work. Widen the sidewalks and put the highway-like streets on a diet - replace traffic lanes with bus lanes or with on-street parking (priced according to demand). Demolish the actual highways, replace them with boulevards, and build more mixed-use on the remaining parcels.
posted by parudox at 9:12 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


PBS recently did a miniseries on urban planning and neighborhood design's impact on public health that I sadly missed and is not being re-run in my market.

They're asking for $100 for the four episodes with a straight face. Shame, because I heard it was very good. So much for getting the word out. But it may still be running in your market.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:13 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


(Well, cupcakes for everyone who can pay $3.00 + for a handful of delicious butter. More of a neighborhood threat has been people who do not want to eat cupcakes, although perhaps with rising demand affordable cupcakes will be an option for everyone in the District...but then the cool kids will have moved onto the next fro-yo or acai bubble tea, etc.)


I also disagree that liberals are failures by bringing up issues like controlled development or historic areas; environmental protections, school population and funding levels, and historic preservation are also often seen as aligned with liberal votes. Wanting to preserve a historic core can have very valid reasons that aren't "you can't have nice things, nyah, nyah." People become pedestrians for a variety of reasons: health, lack of funds, quality of life, fun, etc. You can't lead a person to the crosswalk, but developments and city planners have often ignored pedestrian amenities entirely in favor of coaxing cars and suburban commuters in. American suburbs could be more walkable. Americans could walk more, just for the hell of it, or because it's nice outside, or because the bus stop is only a block away. But many Americans do see pedestrians outside of the historic areas or urban cores as a mistake or problem. Simply increasing development in traditional city centers won't change that.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:15 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I really like walkable places, but I also really dislike cupcakes. (Too much icing, cake is nowhere near as nice as flaky pastry).

Why can't I find a walkable neighbourhood with 6 million danish shops instead?
posted by jb at 9:21 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


Walking is one of those things I hold to be a secular sacrament. Whether it's purposeful, with a destination, or aimless exploration of my small town, in which I find something new on every single circuit, there's something to the process of putting foot in front of foot in front of foot that's just joyous. I walk when I'm sad, when I'm happy, when something concerns me, or when I just need a library book and a pound of steel-cut oats, a block of farm cheese, a pint of heavy cream, and a small jar of star anise. It's a trip, a chore, an adventure, and a meditation, though most practitioners of traditional kinhin would call what I do something else entirely, but still, I come home whole.

I live in the same town where I grew up, albeit in town for the last twenty-four years instead of in the farm (later suburban) side, and I can walk anywhere. The walk score rating for where I live is only 55, though that's only because it presupposes a maximum walking time that's silly and includes all the suburban style corruption that's wrapped the tight little vernacular core where I live like wads of cancer choking a body.

In ten minutes, I can walk to the library, the post office, city hall, a great little used bookstore, an old fashioned meat market, a few decent restaurants, a convenience store, two great mechanics, an ice cream parlor, a small theater, a liquor store, a sports bar, a decent porno store with booths for sleazy types, an authentic diner, a train station, bus stops connecting me to the rest of the area, a great leatherworking establishment. In about seven minutes, I can be at the side of the little Patuxent River, quietly watching a heron standing near the other bank. In fifteen, I can get to the horse track, to a really great Indian grocery shop, a pawn shop, another decent porno store with booths for sleazy types, two grocery stores, two hardware stores, a Jamaican jerk joint, two gyms, and the exact spot where George Wallace was shot in '72, out in front of what used to be the Woolworths. In twenty, I can wander through our dead mall or almost reach a cluster of horrible big box stores.

I work twenty miles away, in Baltimore, but I walk to work. At 7:19 AM, after a satisfying breakfast, I lock the door to my apartment, walk nine and a half minutes, stand on the train platform for about six to nine minutes, and read a book on the train for a half hour. At 8:12, I step off the train at Camden Yards, check the clock on my clocktower against my phone to make sure it's accurate, walk six minutes past the stadium and the hotel complex, and unlock my office door at 8:18. I run a giant clocktower, but maintain an old school converted into studios and galleries on the other side of downtown, working for an organization that's headquartered up the way, about eleven minutes' walk from the tower. To get between all three, I mix modes. I walk, I use a small folding bicycle that occasionally rides home with me on the train, and I use Baltimore's free circulator bus service.

It's all a bit inconvenient, some times, but we have no right to absolute convenience, and the process by which we arrive at lives where we're never asked to wait, or persevere, or take an alternate route just saps what's good about our species. We drive everywhere, then drive to a gym, where we get on a stationary machine where we walk on a belt to simulate activity while a video recording of the flower gardens of Provence unfurls in time to our pace. We become people who, when told that one could make decisions that would make life a little more pedestrian, react in horror, or as if we've been challenged.

I'm lucky, of course. My life lines up in a way that makes my choices easy. I don't have kids, or a specialty that requires me to work in some ghoulish Northern Virginia nightmare, and I like being in-between, because that's when I get to think, and tell myself stories, over and over until I get them just right, and just be there, listening to the world around me or wonderful music spooling out of my headphones. I'm lucky in that I have had an apartment for twenty-four years that rents for half what you'd pay for a shitty apartment complex studio on the run-down side of town, largely because I've been the part-time building super there through three owners, and convinced an ex to buy the place the last time it went up for sale. I don't have much ambition to live in cities, because I get to visit and enjoy one every day, and then enjoy going home, leaving the grime, chaos, and expense twenty miles behind me.

It's not all great, though. I don't get out much, partly because I'm a highly domesticated homebody who enjoys housework, playing with my dogs, catching up on my sewing and other pursuits, and writing, and partly because there's nowhere to go, aside from the gay sports bar up the street. My friends mostly live elsewhere, and beg me to move, but I've got a good life. I've rigged up a multimodal setup for getting around, which goes from feet, to bicycle, to scooter, to motorcycle, to train, to car, et cetera, but occasionally, all my old vehicles will get simultaneously cranky and I'll need to get to the city on the weekend, when no trains run because we're not dirty communists like those Europeans.

I try to advocate for the delights of walking and being more pedestrian, in all senses of the word, but most of my neighbors still drive everywhere. They do it in Priuses and other eco-vehicles, but there's only one neighbor who I ever see walking home from the grocery store. On my bicycle, which I count as a sort of winged pedestrianism, I only ever see latino men and women going to and from work and old white guys who smoke while they're riding and have the air of those who've had a license suspended. I go out on the streets, and it's discouraging that a whole network of sidewalks in a still functioning small town go almost completely unused. Walk at night, and every house glows with the acrid colored wash of screens. I dunno...I just...well, I wish I was better at sharing why it makes me so happy and content to be on my feet.

I was reminded of all this just this week. My car and my commuting motorcycle are both on the fritz, and I've got this obnoxious forty year-old British motorcycle that will sort of fill the gap, except it takes fifteen minutes of enraged jumping on the kickstarter to get it to start, runs like crap, because it's British, and will otherwise make me want to push it over an embankment. Went to Ma's house for Easter, stayed a bit too late, as it cooled down outside, and that fucking motherfucker fucking wouldn't fucking start no matter fucking what I fucking tried (I'm toning down the language I actually used at the time so I'll seem more literary), and I ended up spraining the hell out of my foot, then getting trapped under the damn thing as it toppled onto me. Couldn't walk more than a few steps at a time on Monday, called out sick, was a bit better Tuesday, walked around too much that day, and did something to my hip with my altered gait that crippled me entirely for two days.

Two days where I could hardly walk without sharp, stabbing, agonizing pain was an eye-opener. Took me thirty minutes to shuffle to the train, I actually yelped in pain climbing onto the train, took me twenty minutes to shuffle to work, and I was stuck at my desk, because ow ow ow ow ow ow ow ow. Barely managed to get off the train back at the home station, shuffled home, and felt very sad and off-kilter. Some people live like this all the time. You forget how lucky you are. We all forget.

I'm back on my feet, thanks to enough ibuprofen that I'll probably end up with liver failure, but have paced myself. It's a good provocation to thought, though. I want to be an evangelist for life at a walking pace, but it's an uphill battle. No one wants to walk. If they're fancy liberals, they want a car with a smaller carbon footprint, but they won't give it up. If they're not fancy liberals, they just roll their eyes at you, because you are a wild-eyed hippie in their world, despite the fact that you're almost Amish when you're at home.

I sometimes wonder if I'm just really a complete anomaly in the things I choose and desire, or if it's just a matter of a better argument, tempered with respect, in the service of convincing people that there is another way, and that it's good, too.

In the middle of my ill-starred relationship with a mid-level Hollywood talent executive working in Silver Spring, but with a place in Venice, when we were out west I used to wake up at four thirty and go out to walk on the beach, heading down Superba to Abbot Kinney and out to the ocean. On the best mornings, I'd take off my shoes and pad along in the sand, then head up to the Santa Monica pier, then work my way back. Most of the time, I wouldn't pass another soul until six or so, and it just seemed so sad. Of all the millions of people living in Los Angeles, was I really the only one who had the idea to go out for a walk on that given morning? I just don't understand people, sometimes.
posted by sonascope at 9:22 AM on April 13, 2012 [18 favorites]


On the other hand, there's a brutalist parking structure on every block. Walking or biking along any of the non-residential streets outside of that core - Wisconsin, Arlington Road, Old Georgetown, River Road - is pure misery.

Haha, when I took my (out of state) boyfriend to Bethesda for the first time, he was completely confused by the concept of it being a shopping and visiting hub. I don't mind it as much, probably because I have fond memories of the Barnes and Noble and the shaved ice truck, but it is a weird conglomeration of structures and areas. Most of it is "walkable" and in fact there are even some grocery stores and food places in it, which really defines a neighborhood you could live in without a car, but much of it is really not engaging from the pedestrian angle. Though Wisconsin's not that bad to walk on, really, I've done it from downtown DC a couple of times. Getting from there farther out from the city is really very bad though.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:23 AM on April 13, 2012


Of all the millions of people living in Los Angeles, was I really the only one who had the idea to go out for a walk on that given morning?

I spent a summer interning in Los Angeles, living, it sounds, quite close to you and commuting to a place close to Beverly Hills. I can't drive, so I took two buses, biked to dance classes in Santa Monica, and walked to my German lessons. People actually assumed I had some sort of mental disease, and my classmates would often drive behind me for a bit to make sure I was really sure about walking home. I almost hugged the Metro pylon when I got back to the East Coast.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:27 AM on April 13, 2012


Wanting to preserve a historic core can have very valid reasons that aren't "you can't have nice things, nyah, nyah."

Like all things, it depends on what, exactly, qualifies as "historic".

Again, sorry to limit this to DC, but it’s just about all I know. Right now, there is tremendous pressure on DC real estate prices, because a) lots of people want to live here and b) we have artificially-imposed limits on housing (height limit)

A is a good thing, probably the best thing. But developers have been trying to do end-runs around B by identifying and replacing older buildings, usually with more units in the new ones. So now, “neighborhood preservationists” are going around demanding historic designations for mid-century modernist disasters – something that DC is full of.

The buildings I linked to above were designed by Saarinen/Corbusier proteges, which – along with a few prominent former residents – is the main plank in their application for historic status. There’s no doubt they’ll get it, and valuable real estate that could be put to better/more urban-friendly use will not.
posted by downing street memo at 9:28 AM on April 13, 2012


Are you Matt Yglesias' twin, downing street memo? Your posts are basically condensed versions of several chapters from The Rent is Too Damn High.
posted by zombieflanders at 9:44 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'm a big fan of this particular line of Yglesian thinking, but people have been talking about these issues for awhile.
posted by downing street memo at 9:46 AM on April 13, 2012


Guerilla Crosswalk and a desire path via the Urban Bricolage tumblr.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:47 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


That said, much like the piper we'll be paying, we in the U.S. have very long strolls ahead of us when the oil runs out. Maybe we'll learn proper technique then.

Nah. We'll learn how to build good electric cars and a ton of nuclear power plants very quickly. Of course, we'll be driving those super efficient electric cars inland, because the sea will be rapidly rising...
posted by spaltavian at 9:48 AM on April 13, 2012


I also don't think Yglesias explicitly makes the claim that the set of anti-density, pro-single-family home policies, like many, many other things, is essentially a young-to-old, outsider-to-insider transfer. That to me is the most important thing: Boomers and the generation that followed them snatched up desirable places to live, then got implicit and explicit subsidies making those places even more desirable (mass transit, for instance), and now they, by and large, want to keep people out.
posted by downing street memo at 9:49 AM on April 13, 2012


I thought I wanted to live in the country. When we were house-shopping, though, there were few homes in the country in the market, and none that we liked in our price-range—especially when we started to do the math on commuting. When we were shopping, my husband and I could have carpooled, but he was looking for a different job, and that would mean a second car payment, and doubling the gas and maintenance costs, and adding that on top of house payments already at the top of our range... it just didn't make any sense.

So we live in the middle of our mid-sized midwestern town. It's a very walkable area through a combination of it being in an older neighborhood, and our city having made a considerable effort to keep the downtown viable—despite a Walmart at the edge of town. (*spits between fingers*)

I am now addicted to being a pedestrian. It gives me a strange, heady sense of freedom to know that I can pick up and *walk* to where I want to go: work, home, the public library, the drug store, the grocery store, the hardware store, the yarn store, various restaurants, or the coffee shop. Or, ironically enough, the auto store. (I think it's funny that I got the same rush of freedom from getting my driver's license, learning to use public transportation in our previous city, and learning to walk in our current city.) Walking almost certainly has improved my health, and going from place to place slowly, on foot, gives me a much deeper sense of connection to the community and the people who live here.

Even if presented with an affordable, beautiful, perfectly-sized house with a huge garden (the latter being the most painful sacrifice I made when we bought our current house) it would be really hard for me to made the decision to move to the country, now.
posted by BrashTech at 10:08 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I live in a mid-sized American city where the Rent is Not Too Damn High. I'm a 15 minute walk from a very clean downtown one way, and 15 minutes from the farmer's market the other. Parking downtown isn't fun, nor is driving on city streets, even if they're not the LA/New York-style of gridlock.

So, it seems sensible to me to walk places. I can walk to work (30 minutes,) the hockey arena, any bar, most restaurants I want to go to (everything beyond is by-and-large a suburban chain.) Despite that, I'm looked at like an alien when I tell people (who usually live in the suburbs) that I walked to the bar/work/wherever. "You walked fifteen minutes!?"

I don't get it; it's not that long of a walk, we have nice sidewalks, and the weather will rarely kill you.

I like walking, and I guess I don't understand people who think walking is the way to get to a car.
posted by Turkey Glue at 10:15 AM on April 13, 2012 [4 favorites]


I live in Seattle's University District. My walk score is 100.

It is awesome.
posted by egypturnash at 10:20 AM on April 13, 2012


When I was in middle school it was 2.1 miles(1-way) according to google maps. I walked it even though my best friend got a ride from his mom and she gave at least 3 or 4 other kids a ride home every day. I used to walk out of the school and they would be standing at the same spot every day waiting for her to pick them up and they asked me at least once a week "hey don't you want a ride?" I like to walk. I like the rate of the stream of consciousness during the act of walking. When you are going 40 miles per hour you don't really see much. You don't see birds or lizards or spiders or butterflies or clouds or if the moon is out or not or what is blooming that day. Walking is a basic bio function equal to eating or sleeping or taking a dump.

Descartes's quip could have easily been redone as "I walk, therefore I am."
posted by bukvich at 10:25 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Worth noting that Tom Vanderbilt is MeFi user jgballard, and the author of the book Traffic, which (in)famously (and purportedly) had its origins in an AskMe question.
posted by pardonyou? at 10:31 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I have a short walk to work every day and it's great.

I know people who will talk about how terrible HOAs are and how they would never want to live in a neighborhood with one, but will vigorously defend a "historic district" zoning overlay. It's like the same thing! Except at least with an HOA people know what they are getting into ahead of time.
posted by ghharr at 10:39 AM on April 13, 2012


Downing Street Memo: in my experience, Berkeley is like that too. The "neighborhood preservation" crowd screams "PRESERVE THE PRECIOUSSS!" every time a new development is proposed. I agree that it's more about the people who have their own comfortable niche getting there first and pulling the ladder up after them.

I wonder, too, about making places walkable under extreme weather conditions. It's easy to walk in San Francisco. In Fargo in the winter or Phoenix in the summer more people will choose to drive if they can (and yes, I know there are people who bike in icy winter conditions and I, a wussy Californian, applaud them.) especially if they are elderly or disabled. If I had osteoporosis and was in danger of breaking a hip if I fell on an icy sidewalk I'd think twice about walking somewhere if I lived in that kind of climate. This is something walkability advocates need to address (and to their credit many do).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:42 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It's easy to walk in San Francisco.

Once you acclimate to the hills. ;)
posted by Celsius1414 at 10:44 AM on April 13, 2012


Celsius1414: I was in the best shape of my life when I lived in San Francisco and walked up all those hills all the time! When I ran for the bus I could leave burly, muscular men eating my dust! It didn't really sink in how much energy I was burning up just walking around until I got a car, moved to the 'burbs and promptly grew two clothing sizes. I got a lot of exercise and fresh (?) air just by living my life. That was a really terrific perk about living in a walkable city - I didn't have to set aside "exercise time" because it was something I just did as part of my day.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 10:57 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


From my week in San Francisco, I felt like one would get at least as much exercise driving a stick as they would walking.
posted by zombieflanders at 10:59 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


I've both walked and driven a stick in SF and can confirm both of the above comments. :D
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:02 AM on April 13, 2012


Downing Street Memo: in my experience, Berkeley is like that too.

This is why when people say I live in Berkeley, I correct them and say I live in Oakland. (I do live in Oakland, but a couple hundred feet from the Berkeley border, and I'm more likely to go north when I leave my house than to go south.) The border is generally invisible, except for the annoying "Berkeley: nuclear free zone" signs and the fact that when you cross into Berkeley there are a lot more streets that you can't go down because there are things blocking them.

It's easy to walk in San Francisco.

I am originally from somewhere where it snows. Whenever I see the hills that some people live on in San Francisco (or in other hilly parts of the Bay Area) I think "oh my god, what do they do when it snows?" and then I remember that it doesn't.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:03 AM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


My experience is actually that while urbanism is increasingly hip, it's only marginally more popular. There's been minor forces from demography, federal spending and energy prices that have made Cities more attractive economically. But in terms of people's unwillingness to give up their cars, their ethnocentrism and their concerns about family formation, I haven't seen the shift except in news articles.

Ditto. Anyone have any inside info?

Walking is one of those things I hold to be a secular sacrament.

I shattered my hip a few years back, and I now consider running to be the same. It took me about 9 months to get there, so a day doesn't go by when I don't break into a run, even if it's just for 50 feet.

I've both walked and driven a stick in SF and can confirm both of the above comments.

I've walked, driven a stick, bussed, and biked the streets of SF pretty constantly for over 20 years.

It is a fine city for walking.

when you cross into Berkeley there are a lot more streets that you can't go down because there are things blocking them.

As a bicyclist, I can tell you that is a feature, not a bug. I'm pretty new to South Berkeley, so I haven't seen the NIMBYism yet. Most of my neighbors are pretty cool, but yeah, every city/town suffers from an "i got here first" mentality.

We drive everywhere, then drive to a gym, where we get on a stationary machine where we walk on a belt

I work near a 24-Hour, and it always boggles my mind to walk by people walking/running on treadmills or using stair machines, especially when it's a beautiful day. There's steps and hills all over this damn city.

I know, I know. I get it. Whatever works for you, etc., but it's pure anathema to me. It's like riding the escalator/elevator to the gym. It just seems so inefficient.

And then I think about it a little more and can totally understand the appeal for women. ... so there's that.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:30 AM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


It says my apartment has a walk score of 83, but apparently the bar across the street is a restaurant (they definitely don't serve food), the coffee shop at the corner provides "Shopping", and the university baseball field down the street counts as a park.

Hmmm...
posted by Defenestrator at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2012


>That to me is the most important thing: Boomers and the generation that followed them snatched up desirable places to live,
> then got implicit and explicit subsidies making those places even more desirable (mass transit, for instance), and now they,
> by and large, want to keep people out.

Isn't this something that mortality will solve? Boomers were born all at once (relatively speaking, basically during one decade) sixtyish years ago, so the time can't be very far off when they die all at once and whatever desirable places they were keeping people out of will (must) pass into younger hands.
posted by jfuller at 11:33 AM on April 13, 2012


As a bicyclist, I can tell you that is a feature, not a bug

I wasn't trying to say that it's a feature or a bug, just that it's noticeable. As a pedestrian, I really don't care, although it's nice that there are certain streets that generally have very few cars; they're less stress-inducing to walk along. (But it's kind of annoying when someone gives me a ride and I end up telling them to turn down some street they can't drive on. In Philadelphia I had a similar problem: I couldn't remember which way various one-way-for-cars streets go.)
posted by madcaptenor at 11:35 AM on April 13, 2012


It says my apartment has a walk score of 83, but apparently the bar across the street is a restaurant (they definitely don't serve food), the coffee shop at the corner provides "Shopping", and the university baseball field down the street counts as a park.

It used to say that the guy in the department next to mine was a grocery store. I never could figure this out. They seem to have fixed their data, though.

But I get 92 for where I lived in Philly and 97 for where I live now in Oakland. My old place was definitely more walkable. It was also in a poorer neighborhood, though, so perhaps business establishments there were less likely to have Internet presences.
posted by madcaptenor at 11:39 AM on April 13, 2012


Isn't this something that mortality will solve? Boomers were born all at once (relatively speaking, basically during one decade) sixtyish years ago, so the time can't be very far off when they die all at once and whatever desirable places they were keeping people out of will (must) pass into younger hands.

Depends on the city, I think. I'd be excited if I lived in NYC - tons of rent-controlled apartments (another argument entirely) are being clung to by, well, geezers. But here in DC the development started later, and I think the group that got the best deal out of all of this are people that bought urban-ish residences in the 1990s. It'll take some time before they relinquish their grasp over policymaking.
posted by downing street memo at 11:45 AM on April 13, 2012


Isn't this something that mortality will solve? Boomers were born all at once (relatively speaking, basically during one decade) sixtyish years ago, so the time can't be very far off when they die all at once and whatever desirable places they were keeping people out of will (must) pass into younger hands.

Unfortunately, thanks to modern medicine, a significant portion of them will go on living for another 20-40 years. And if the Singularity hits, and everybody gets immortality, we're screwed.
posted by Celsius1414 at 11:50 AM on April 13, 2012


Isn't this something that mortality will solve? Boomers were born all at once (relatively speaking, basically during one decade) sixtyish years ago, so the time can't be very far off when they die all at once and whatever desirable places they were keeping people out of will (must) pass into younger hands.

I don't think so. There's nothing particular to the boomer generation that makes them extra protective of the desirable places where they live, they just happen to be the current incumbents. There's not going to be a moment where the boomers are all dead and a younger cohort moves in and everything is cool. There will be gradual turnover and the new residents will adopt the same attitude of "I live in this cool place and I don't want it to change in any way."
posted by ghharr at 11:52 AM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


My old place was definitely more walkable. It was also in a poorer neighborhood, though, so perhaps business establishments there were less likely to have Internet presences.

Yeah, Walk Score definitely seems to have its own prejudices about what makes a "walkable" environment, but I suppose it has to ...
posted by mrgrimm at 12:06 PM on April 13, 2012


There's nothing particular to the boomer generation

Well, there are more of them.
posted by downing street memo at 12:17 PM on April 13, 2012


Yes. We have come to this. We have to reteach a generation how to...

walk?

As a particular TV chef often says: "fuck me."
posted by clvrmnky at 12:52 PM on April 13, 2012


A couple of years ago I heard Christopher Leinberger speak at the Livable St. Louis conference. This quote pretty much sums up his message:
40% of those surveyed in Greater Boston desired walkable urbanism, while 30% favored drivable suburbanism and 30% would accept either. Leinberger estimates that 10% of housing in Sunbelt cities like Atlanta and Phoenix is in walkable urban places, while 25% of housing in Boston and Chicago is in this category.
In short there are tons of people who want to live in walkable communities--and even more who wouldn't mind it. And of course there are tons of people who don't want anything to do with living in such places.

But the housing mix we have currently caters almost exclusively to the people who love the suburban/driving experience.

In short, we have a failure of the market, where it in fact is NOT providing people with the mix of housing options they actually want.

Lots of comments above have identified some of the reasons, notably city planning, zoning, development, and transportation policies.

Another big one in the U.S., though, is federal transportation policy and funding. "Here's a few billion free dollars to build giant freeways connecting the far-flung suburbs to jobs, shopping, etc etc etc. Do whatever you want with it as long as it's nothing but that!" every year for 40-50 years will do that. It basically amounts to a massive federal subsidy of suburban living.

(And FYI here is a very interesting and very conservative argument making just that point.)
posted by flug at 1:09 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Downing Street Memo: in my experience, Berkeley is like that too. The "neighborhood preservation" crowd screams "PRESERVE THE PRECIOUSSS!" every time a new development is proposed. I agree that it's more about the people who have their own comfortable niche getting there first and pulling the ladder up after them.

Oh Berkeley... how your NIMBYism makes me scream. It's funny because a lot of the problem is that the home owners (aged hippies or affluent yuppies) really enjoy the feeling and the benefits of living in a somewhat urban area, but they don't want to deal with the riff raff.

This is why when people say I live in Berkeley, I correct them and say I live in Oakland. (I do live in Oakland, but a couple hundred feet from the Berkeley border, and I'm more likely to go north when I leave my house than to go south.) The border is generally invisible, except for the annoying "Berkeley: nuclear free zone" signs and the fact that when you cross into Berkeley there are a lot more streets that you can't go down because there are things blocking them.

There are other subtle differences when you cross the border, like the pavement quality. (I used to routinely get flats when I crossed into Oakland on Telegraph because my tires weren't inflated enough and the road is terrible.) The traffic calming treatments are an interesting case as well, because they're meant to deter/impede drug chases from Oakland apparently.

We're house hunting in Berkeley and Oakland right now, and the walkability has been a huge factor, but there's also been a distinct lack of inventory, and what's there is pretty pricey. Lots of young families are priced out and forced to the burbs, reinforcing the American dream. Never mind, as flug pointed out, that Federal funding encourages this kind of development. The latest round of authorization had glimmers of change, but Congress is killing it.
posted by kendrak at 1:22 PM on April 13, 2012


I don't get the whole idea that people have to live in central, urban areas to have a "walkable" neighbourhood. I think that often the state of the suburbs are as much of the fault of planning as they are of people's habits of consumption. The whole dead malls phenomenon is a fantastic example of that, actually, where malls "die" because something new and shiny has popped up in other section of town and people would rather go there to do their shopping - and how do they get there? They drive, of course.

We are not in the practice of creating self-sustaining communities anymore, just of creating these giant bedroom-community suburbs around cities where people have to drive everywhere and they have to because they WILL.

They often say that the ironic thing about bike lanes is that there have to be a bunch of people cycling on unsuitable infrastructure who create a demand for it and the same thing goes for walkable neighbourhoods - for it to become walkable, people have to WALK and create the demand for the infrastructure to support it.

You want a walkable neighbourhood? Walk. Support the businesses that are closest to you. Encourage your neighbours to do the same. Vote for city councils and other politicians that support the development of that kind of urban and suburban landscape. Get involved (or start!) a community association and lobby for walkable (and bikeable) infrastructure (and public transportation to support it). Be the change you want to see in the world and stop expecting other people to change it for you. It sounds like Sonascope has it. It's not fun to be the first person to stick your neck out to change things, but someone has to.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:39 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


Oops, sorry, meant to link to Sonascope's comment, rather than his profile.
posted by urbanlenny at 1:41 PM on April 13, 2012


We're house hunting in Berkeley and Oakland right now, and the walkability has been a huge factor, but there's also been a distinct lack of inventory, and what's there is pretty pricey. Lots of young families are priced out and forced to the burbs, reinforcing the American dream.

KendraK: I lived in Oakland's Temescal neighborhood for several years and loved it. Walkable, neighborhoody, the whole nine yards. Since I haven't lived there in a while I don't know if it's become priced out of your reach - but if not I highly recommend Temescal!

On the "young families" note, I was working on a project years ago where I had to use some neighborhood data from the 2000 Census. You could check for stats by zip code (among other searches). I noted in passing that the average age of the residents in a couple of the North Berkeley and Berkeley Hills zip code areas was 49 years. Same with some parts of Marin County. Those facts came up in the presentation I gave, and someone remarked that these areas were turning into de facto retirement communities. I wonder what will happen with areas like that - not that there's anything wrong with retirees or older folks, but if sizable parts of cities or "nice" walkable suburbs or towns become age-homogenous and have no kids or even young people starting careers (never mind the race and class issues).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:52 PM on April 13, 2012


Yeah, Walk Score definitely seems to have its own prejudices about what makes a "walkable" environment, but I suppose it has to ...

For me the walk score was 77, which seems about right, but it was influenced by some weird things. For instance I could walk to the locksmith, if I wanted to, but I don't really think that makes the area more walkable. It also gave me a ton of hits for "grocery stores" that basically sell Little Debbie cakes and cigarettes.

In short there are tons of people who want to live in walkable communities--and even more who wouldn't mind it. And of course there are tons of people who don't want anything to do with living in such places.

I think that accounts for part of the disconnect on how much people want to live in walkable communities; some people really, really want to, and some people basically hate all communities that are walkable, even if they don't hate walkability per se. My parents, for instance, live in place with a walk score of 0. Of the places they lived before there, it tops out at like a 20, and that was probably lower than when they lived there. That makes sense, of course, because my father refuses to live anywhere where he doesn't have at least one tree on his own property, and firmly believes that if you live "in the city"(a phrase that can encompass downtown Morehead City, NC, population 5,000) then it's just a matter of time before you are robbed and killed.

I like walkable neighborhoods; my parents? Not so much.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:59 PM on April 13, 2012 [1 favorite]


You want a walkable neighbourhood? Walk. Support the businesses that are closest to you. Encourage your neighbours to do the same. Vote for city councils and other politicians that support the development of that kind of urban and suburban landscape. Get involved (or start!) a community association and lobby for walkable (and bikeable) infrastructure (and public transportation to support it). Be the change you want to see in the world and stop expecting other people to change it for you.

Sorry, but this is sort of silly. You can't change 75 years of walker-unfriendly development by walking to the grocery store and electing a few politicians, and there are only very limited circumstances under which a suburban/exurban community can truly reposition itself towards more urban growth patterns.

Not to mention, literally every part of the suburbs has been engineered so as to be unfriendly as possible to people walking around. My neighborhood growing up had no sidewalks. None, anywhere. Had my parents wanted to walk to the nearest commercial establishment - not even a useful place, mind you, but just a place that sells stuff - they'd have to walk a mile and a half either in the road or in the dirt next to it. The nearest real grocery store is 3 miles away, again with no sidewalks on the route, across an overpass and through a cloverleaf interchange. Stores are set off from the street by parking lots that would literally encompass my entire neighborhood in DC. And my folks don't live in the exurbs; it's a fairly close-in suburb of Richmond, VA.

This pattern of development will not be reversed, no matter how much people hope it will. The alternative is to move to places where those patterns haven't taken hold, but that alternative is unnecessarily expensive for the reasons folks have laid out in this thread.
posted by downing street memo at 2:22 PM on April 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I think a lot of this line of thinking is, quite frankly, designed to make Slate's predominantly urban liberal audience feel superior to the suburbanized rubes in flyover country.

Is there something to support the idea that suburbs are entirely or even mostly the curse of flyover country? I've lived on the coast and I've lived inland, and IMO suburbs are everywhere, but are especially numerous around large population centers such as, well, coastal cities.

I'm currently in the heart of flyover country and I live in a central urban neighborhood (walk score 88, which I think is low). I've lived in cities where the downtown was blighted, but I'm currently in one where the downtown is vibrant.

My point, and I do have one, is that walkability does not depend on geographical location or even so much city. Denver, Austin, Minneapolis, Chicago and many other cities in flyover country have extremely walkable neighborhoods, although the overall city score might be low. Coastal cities like LA and Baltimore have much lower walkability scores. It's way easier to get around without a car in Denver than it is anywhere in California, IMX.
posted by caryatid at 3:40 PM on April 13, 2012


Isn't this something that mortality will solve? Boomers were born all at once (relatively speaking, basically during one decade) sixtyish years ago, so the time can't be very far off when they die all at once and whatever desirable places they were keeping people out of will (must) pass into younger hands.

Oh goodie, more Boomer bashing. Is there anything the Boomers can't be blamed for? Any undesirable attribute that cannot be assigned to them as a group? I guess not!

In fact, Boomers were not born "all at once" or during one decade, but spread out over a period of 18 years.

And I hate to be the one to break this to you, but even if all the Boomers died at once tomorrow, it would still not solve all of your problems. So sorry.

I'm going to live to 100 just to piss you off.
posted by caryatid at 3:59 PM on April 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


That walk score site gave my place a score of 69, which seems crazy low to me. I have a car because it's a nice luxury, but there's not much real need for it. I live close to the center, next to two bus lines, and within easy walking distance (as in, between half and one mile on flatish ground, with sidewalks, slow traffic, and crosswalks) of bars, restaurants, parks, a grocery store, a hospital, and the usual coffee shops, clothing stores, etc. And there's very little street crime, so the walking is safe, day and night.

I've lived in denser (and theoretically more walking-friendly) big city neighborhoods, but in those places you had to be careful about crime, so sometimes in practice they were less walking friendly than a map would suggest.

But as others have said, as someone who likes to walk I routinely get treated as crazy for walking ten minutes (again, on level ground, in warm weather, and on safe streets) instead of driving that half mile, so I'm not surprised that walking becomes more of a marginal activity.
posted by Forktine at 4:40 PM on April 13, 2012


I wish I could say I believed that my generation would stay in urban, walkable neighborhoods forever...but I totally, totally do not. I know loads of people who live in dense, walkable areas now but most of them grew up in suburbs with big lots and good public schools, and most of them want that same childhood for their kids.

I grew up in the suburbs of Los Angeles and actually had kids yell "freak" at me from their front yards as I walked by. But I live in west LA now and people at work give me crap for carpooling the 3 miles to work instead of biking. I wouldn't mind walking (I am not a cyclist) but my husband gets the fantods thinking about me walking by myself to work so I guess I'm stuck with the status quo.
posted by troublesome at 9:11 PM on April 13, 2012


My walkability score is 82. I can get to a grocery store, restaurants, parks, stores, and work within a half hour of walking. Which rocks. However, I do pay more for this kind of convenience, which is perhaps something that regular folks with cars aren't as concerned with. If it's cheaper rent to live on the edge of town and have to drive to everything...eh, they probably don't even notice. I've pondered moving, but it's hard to do much better at my level of rent payment for the location. I also live in one of the few places that isn't urban and is walkable.

I am pondering moving to a way less walkable location mentioned here one of these years (since I now have a license, it's an actual OPTION for me to move), and it quietly freaks me out reading this thread. I've found a few sites dedicated to walking in the area that I am scoping out, but that of course depends on where you end up working and how bad the commute is. I keep thinking things like, "Is it safe for me to walk around with groceries? If that's even an option" and "How fat am I going to get if I'm not walking to work every day?" It'll be a sad day when that's no longer a reasonable option for me.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:52 PM on April 13, 2012


According to just about everything Bill Bryson ever wrote, it's more or less impossible to go for a nice walk in most towns in America. Which seems a shame, as television tells me there are a lot of things worth looking at in America. Massive expanses of deracinated, chemical-drenched landscape, abandoned factories etc.
posted by tumid dahlia at 1:44 AM on April 14, 2012


I am originally from somewhere where it snows. Whenever I see the hills that some people live on in San Francisco (or in other hilly parts of the Bay Area) I think "oh my god, what do they do when it snows?" and then I remember that it doesn't.

So glad I'm not the only former-snowy-place-dweller who experiences this. For me, it's not even so much the hills in SF - when I go past a particularly steep driveway that drops down to a garage under someone's house, I still always wonder how the hell they get out on icy mornings. Then I remember. I've only lived here 11 years.
posted by rtha at 9:39 AM on April 14, 2012


Public schools are probably the biggest factor in a family's decision to locate. For lots of people, buying a house in a good school district saves them $20,000 or whatever in private-school tuition. Why pay for private school when you can get the equivalent at a suburban public school financed by high property taxes on new homes?

That's only one of the many factors that hurt walkable neighborhoods, but it's a big one. It's one thing to have your kids hang out the plebes; it's quite another to have to share your funds for education. Moving farther apart keeps them from walking into your neighborhood as well. Gates work too.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:23 PM on April 14, 2012


If it's cheaper rent to live on the edge of town and have to drive to everything...eh, they probably don't even notice.

A household's housing + transportation cost tends to remain fairly constant. We've all seen the phenomenon where you start looking for housing close to where you work (or whatever primary destination(s) your are interested in), only to find out the decent housing in that area is too expensive. So you start looking outward in ever-larger concentric circles until you find a place where the cost of housing + cost of commuting (including your time as well as monetary costs) reaches some sort of balance

The H+T Affordability Index calculates these factors for various places. You can find the H+T Index score for many neighborhoods in the U.S. here. and more about the issue here.

A Heavy Load: The Combined Housing and Transportation Burdens of Working Families (PDF) documents the issue and makes for some fascinating reading. Quote:
[T]here is a clear trade off between the housing and transportation expenses of
Working Families. Families that spend more than half of their total household expenditures on housing put 7.5 percent of their budget towards transportation. By contrast, families that spend 30 percent or less of their total budget on housing spend nearly one-quarter of their budget on transportation — three times as much as those in less affordable housing.
FWIW this is the basic reason so many of the exurbs are dying on the vine as the housing bubble bursts and the cost of gas goes up. If your major transportation expense and only reasonable transportation option is driving, places that were perfectly affordable when gas was $1/gallon become unaffordable when gas hits $4/gallon.

Of course, if the price of gasoline were to go down again, things could shift back . . .

they probably don't even notice

One of the problems is that it is in fact often just as economical, or more so, to live in a place that costs more in rent/mortgage but requires far less driving--particularly if it doesn't require owning a car at all, or requires fewer cars (say, one car rather than two or three or four for a family).

But many people don't realize the savings they can realize, just don't want to 'give up' their car no matter what, have a hard time calculating what the savings will be (whereas the higher rent/mortgage is a simple and clear dollar per month figure) and/or can't get a mortgage for the more expensive dwelling, even though housing+transportation might be the same or less as other alternatives, because the bank doesn't take these factors into account either.

In short, as you say, people don't even notice what they are missing when they choose a more outlying/suburban neighborhood but they sure do notice the perceived problems of the more dense/walkable areas--crime! traffic! gridlock! no parking space! high rent! grar!
posted by flug at 12:12 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't think we can just say that people live in burbs because they are dumb and racist, though. Most families in this country live in suburbs, and most of them are not dumb or racist! lot of urban centers really have genuinely horrible schools, many are devoid of basic amenities like well-stocked grocery stores and movie theaters. Sacrificing walkability is a reasonable price to pay for many people. Hate the suburb, not the surburbanite.
posted by miyabo at 8:42 PM on April 15, 2012


Hate the suburb, not the surburbanite.

That sounds suspiciously like a lot of religious people's stance on homosexuality. Would there be suburbs if the suburbanites didn't want them?

I don't think we can just say that people live in burbs because they are dumb and racist

Mostly just racist. But we all are, I suppose.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:59 AM on April 16, 2012


The True Cost of Unwalkable Streets, The Atlantic Cities blog.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:49 AM on April 16, 2012


Would there be suburbs if the suburbanites didn't want them?

Did you miss the part where he outlines legitimate reasons why people wouldn't want to live in cities with kids? I love my nicely walkable urban neighborhood, but I doubt I'll stay here when I have kids. A lot of urban schools are objectively terrible, you don't need to be racist not to want to send your kids there.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:13 AM on April 16, 2012


I don't know why people seem to think that children who live in urban areas have a terrible life. I grew up in the suburbs; many of my close friends grew up in urban (right downtown, highrise buildings) and semi-urban (low-rise houses, but dense, like Queens) areas, and we seem to have had the same quality of life. I played outside; they played outside. I had local parks; they had local parks. I had to take long bus rides to get anywhere as a teenager (minimum one-hour), they had fast streetcars and subways or could walk anywhere in less than 1/2 an hour.... wait, that was a better quality of life.

Now, maybe I wasn't a typical suburbanite, because I lived in a suburban apartment building. But I have to say that my friend who grew up with the large house, large backyard (and a pool) was much more unhappy with her neighbourhood than I was. I always had lots of kids to play with, because I had no backyard and had to play in the local park, whereas she was lonely and her friends were always too far away to come to visit.

As for the walkability issue:

I don't know how it is in the US, but in Canada suburbs, particularly the really poorly planned ones settled in the 1950s-1970s, can be the poorest areas of the city. In Toronto the areas with excellent public transit are substantially richer than the sprawling suburbs those without good transit, and many people who live in the suburbs (because it is cheaper) also do not own cars and are on the true shit-end of the lack of infrastructure for walking and transit.

Here's a picture of Jane and Finch, the main intersection of one of Toronto's poorest areas and where there is a heavy amount of pedestrian traffic. Intersections like this are like canker sores on the face of the city. It's a driver's paradise, but a resident's nightmare.
posted by jb at 3:14 PM on April 16, 2012


I don't know why people seem to think that children who live in urban areas have a terrible life.

Because in the US, schools are funded from county taxes, and suburbs of a city tend to be their own counties. Due to federally-driven suburbanization, hollowing out of inner cities with highways and "urban renewal", redlining, white flight, and so on, the inner cities in the US became rather tax-poor compared to the suburbs, and "inner city schools" were one of the casualties.

In Canada, there's no suburban-urban divide on school quality because funding is provincial, rather than municipal. Cities here have also had less of that federally-driven suburbanization,
posted by parudox at 4:01 PM on April 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


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