Monday, September 17, 2012

Complete Streets: A Personal Anecdote

I recently had a first-hand experience with the social impacts of a century of automobile-centric street design.

I awoke to a dead car.  Very dead.  Not even a clicking sound when I pressed the Prius’ start button.  Road service started the car with jumper cables and I nursed the car to a repair shop, hoping that the problem was nothing more than a worn-out battery.

The shop owner suggested that I get breakfast while his crew worked.  I looked around in puzzlement, wondering where breakfast was available.  The owner advised me to walk a quarter-mile down an arterial to a McDonalds.  With the alternative being a naugahyde couch and breakfast from a vending machine, I took his advice.  And I’m pleased I did, although more for the insights offered by the walk than for the cuisine at the destination.

For much of the walk, the sidewalk was four feet in width.  Certainly sufficient for one person to walk, but not enough for the walk to be comfortable.  Not with traffic passing by at 35 miles per hour only a few feet away.  (A four-foot bike line didn’t provide much separation, but I probably felt safer than a bicyclist would have.)  And then there were the regularly-spaced utility poles which restricted the sidewalk width to only a couple of feet.

In a few segments, the sidewalk widened to eight feet, the apparent result of new land uses complying with updated city standards.  But the wider sections were only brief respites.  And, with no other pending land use applications and severely restricted city finances, there seems little hope for further widening.  Not that even a consistent eight feet would have made the walk pleasant.

Halfway along my route, a police officer had pulled over a motorist for a traffic violation.  The officer didn’t notice me until I was directly behind his motorcycle.  He glanced up quickly in cautious suspicion, followed by puzzlement.  But I guess my middle-aged appearance wasn’t threatening.  He resumed writing the ticket.

Even when I reached the McDonalds, the bad news for pedestrians wasn’t over.  There was no direct pedestrian route from the sidewalk to the restaurant.  I did what other pedestrians had done, following fresh footprints up a grassy mound, passing through a break in a hedge that had been formed by years of pedestrian use, and crossing the drive-thru lane.  It seemed too much trouble to reach a McDonalds.

After “dining” (to be fair, the sausage burrito exceeded my expectations), I tried to follow a legitimate pedestrian route back to the sidewalk.  There wasn’t one.  There only pedestrian routes from McDonalds to the city sidewalk were across wet grass or in an asphalt lane intended for cars.  And the cars didn’t seem eager to share.

Luckily, the battery was the only fix needed, although the bill was high because the Japanese tsunami had obliterated the primary source of auxiliary batteries for Prii.  (I didn’t see that one coming.)  I was able to resume my day from the comfort of my front seat.  But the lessons of the morning walk lingered.

As an urbanist, I know that sidewalks are often uncomfortable to use.  And I certainly observe inadequate sidewalks on a near-daily basis.  But the reminder of what it’s like to walk on a sidewalk along a busy arterial made that theoretical knowledge more visceral.

I won’t pretend that my walk was at all unusual.  Daily, I see people using sidewalks that are worse.  But my recent reading on the Complete Streets movement re-opened my eyes to the discomfort and social segregation that comes with being a pedestrian in an environment designed for cars.

And it made me think about the people who, because of life circumstances, must walk those sidewalks daily.

In this country, there is a narrative that people who can’t avail themselves of a privilege, such as the privilege of driving a car, are to blame for their situation.  And like most narratives, there is some truth.  Some of the pedestrians we see through our windshields have made poor life decisions.

But that doesn’t explain everyone.   What about those who were born with birth defects?  Or those who are victims of assaults that left them incapable of driving?  Or those who are too young or too old to drive?  Or those who have looked at the impacts of driving and have made the principled decision to leave their car parked for a day and to travel instead by foot?

The image that recurred to me is of 15-year-old boy.  He’s a theoretical young man, but we likely all know youths who are in similar situations.  Perhaps his parents made poor life decisions, leaving them unable to afford a car.  Or perhaps both are working to support the household.  In either case, the young man must walk the same sidewalk I walked.  Perhaps to a tutoring session.  Or maybe to a baseball practice.  And while walking, he’d be subject to the same startled glance from the police officer that I drew.  And perhaps the officer’s suspicions wouldn’t be a quickly assuaged as they were about me.

Is that really how we want to treat that young man?  With the sense that he is somehow less than his fellow youths because he must use a sidewalk?  And with the knowledge that using a sidewalk automatically makes him suspicious in the eyes of a police officer?

The Complete Streets movement is nowhere near a full solution to the social issues of this country.  But by creating streets where more people use the sidewalk, reducing the social segregation, it’s a step in the right direction.

I’ve been silent about the city and the street of which I’m writing.  That has been intentional.  I have no reason to malign a particular town, public works staff, or police department.  They have only been following the design standards and behavioral expectations that prevail across the country.  Besides, a setting such as I describe can probably be found in every North Bay city.  Or at least those that have a McDonalds.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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