By Paul Day
I’ve always been a walker. I remember when I was in the 5th grade, walking to school, to the grocery store, to the party store to pick up some Better Made Potato Chips and pop (Midwesternness). My mother worked a pretty long shift, so I basically had to fend for myself. Taking a bus made no sense at all because I always lived close enough to walk everywhere I needed to go. And Dearborn, Michigan is actually a rather walkable suburb in parts, believe it or not.
Today’s kids are turned into wimps mostly because parents are too afraid to let them go anywhere by themselves. The other day, I was taking the Metro and I noticed lots of kids riding on their own. Was I worried? No. Our society lacks trust in the urban street and there are some good reasons for that. But there are also consequences.
More often than not, we neglect walkability in neighborhood design. Notice how I said neighborhood. We think of neighborhood blocks as merely the in-between as we pass from driveway to parking lot.
And then there are some of our neighbors who believe that having street activity is a bad thing, meaning we should have curfews and separation between commercial, residential, and work uses. But having lots of eyes on the street at all hours of the day, especially from a diverse crowd of folks, is actually a good thing. It’s what makes a city thrive. And suburbs are not exempt from this either.
Today, we’re so afraid of crime that we shelter our children and perhaps, rob them of their trust in the street. It’s even worse in the exurbs where there are no walkable streets. There are no places for kids to interact with folks unlike themselves. And it’s no wonder that prejudice and general selfishness prevail.
We design our cities so they are more dangerous for children because we give primacy to the automobile. Just imagine a child crossing Baltimore’s President Street, Calvert, or Central Avenue.
I recently moved to Washington Hill, where I’m still close enough to walk to work. My 15 minute commute takes me down Baltimore Street where I pass by several homeless missions. At first, I thought the biggest challenge of my car free commute would be interacting with strangers through this sketchy part of town. But actually, it’s the poor urban design that has made me more frustrated and fearful of my safety.
The above photo is Central Avenue @ E. Baltimore Street. This is a major thoroughfare and is always busy during rush hour. Notice the lack of even rudimentary crossing signals. This happens to be the corner where many homeless Baltimoreans congregate to receive food, shelter, and services.
It makes me wonder if this design is intentionally thoughtless or whether there is an implied assumption that the safety of this population doesn’t matter, that nobody from “civilized society” would be walking through this part of town. Nonetheless, it’s a dangerous intersection and I have no choice other than to jaywalk (if that term even applies, given the lack of a crossing signal).
Cities put a lot of money into what they call infrastructure, which usually mean roads, bridges, and highways for cars. But what about the pedestrians? How many pedestrian crosswalks, signals, and lights could we build across busy Baltimore intersections for the cost we’re spending on infrastructure for cars?
The problem is that the city is a place to drive through on the way to work. Hence, how streets are designed to accomodate walking makes little difference to the city engineer or planner who, like most Americans, drives to work and lives in a single family home with a driveway.
But I go back to my childhood and I think of how streets are designed with little thought of those on foot.