Dozing polar bear, Indianapolis Zoo

Friday, February 29, 2008

The answer for what ails us all: sidewalks

What is it with this country? Why is the thoughtful placement of those technological stumpers called sidewalks apparently beyond our ken?

I'm a coffee addict. I've been cold-brewing my joe lately, which is just as well since my coffee maker carafe busted last week. Well, for a variety of reasons, most of them related to my own personal failures, I'm out of cold-brewed coffee extract. So I decided to grab a cup from one of those teeny little espresso stands near the gas station just outside my neighborhood.

I walked. Because it would have been absurd to get into a car to go there. It is impossible to overstate how short this walk is, people, and how easy it should have been. But I found myself picking my way through a muddy field just to avoid taking my chances on the busy road that would have taken me to Microscopic Espresso Stand had I been silly enough to climb into my car to go there. There is an overwhelming sense, when you try to walk somewhere in settings like this, that you are some sort of vagabond operating outside the bounds of social acceptability.

Bill Bryson said this in A Walk in the Woods:

It was a warm afternoon, and it felt wonderful -- you can't believe how wonderful -- to be at large without a pack, bouncy and unburdened. With a pack you walk at a tilt, hunched and pressed forward, your eyes on the ground. You trudge; it is all you can do. Without, you are liberated. You walk erect. You look around. You spring. You saunter. You amble.

Or at least you do for four blocks. Then you come to a mad junction at Burger King and discover that the new six-lane road to Kmart is long, straight, very busy, and entirely without facilities for pedestrians -- no sidewalks, no pedestrian crossings, no central refuges, no buttons to push for a WALK signal at lively intersections. I walked through the gas station and motel forecourts and across restaurant parking lots, clambered over concrete barriers, crossed lawns, and pushed through neglected ranks of privet or honeysuckle at property boundaries. At bridges over creeks and culverts -- and goodness me how developers love a culvert -- I had no choice but to walk on the road, pressed against the dusty railings and causing less attentive cars to swerve to avoid me. Four times I was honked at for having the temerity to proceed through town without benefit of metal. One bridge was so patently dangerous that I hesitated at it. The creek it crossed was only a reedy trickle, narrow enough to step across, so I decided to go that way. I slid and scampered down the bank, found myself in a hidden zone of sucking grey mud, pitched over twice, hauled myself up the other side, pitched over again, and emerged at length streaked and speckled with mud and extravagantly decorated with burrs. When I finally reached the Kmart Plaza I discovered that I was on the wrong side of the road and had to dash through six lanes of hostile traffic. By the time I crossed the parking lot and stepped into the air-conditioned, Muzak-happy world of Kmart I was as grubby as if I had been on the trail, and trembling all over.

The Kmart, it turned out, didn't stock insect repellent.

Sidewalks, friends. If communities were intelligently connected with a reliable network of sidewalks, imagine the problems solved. Less gas consumed, and less carbon expelled. Fewer of us dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes. Fewer pedestrian fatalities. Greater feelings of well-being.

Tell me not of how this goes against the interests of the establishment. I know that already; if sidewalks put money into the pockets of the oligarchs, I wouldn't be able to swing a cat without hitting one. I have a radical suggestion -- probably the exact sort of thing that got my Dad accused of being a Communist sympathizer by one of his grade school teachers in the 40s: Let's structure society around what's good for ordinary folks just trying to get their hands on a little bit of coffee in the morning. What say?


KCB said...


I completely sympathize. I can't walk to the nearest shopping center (one mile from my front door) because I'd have to pick my way through the tall grass alongside an access road with 50-mph traffic. Ironically, it's twice as far by car because of the one-way streets and winding suburban roads.

This is also the route to the soon-to-be-finished commuter-rail station, and I'm hoping they'll install some frackin sidewalks so DH doesn't have to leap through the tall grass like a deer as part of his daily commute.

Trailhead said...

Argh -- ironic to have the path to the commuter rail station be unwalkable for those nearest to it.

As I reflect on it, the northern part of Coeur d'Alene, where I am, seems well situated to use sidewalks to tie the larger community together. But this is, of course, Idaho.

This sort of thing makes me miss Portland, which has bike lanes, sidewalks, and greenways sensibly arranged. And a fast food chain that uses local ingredients and wind power for 100% of its electricity needs.

Danger Panda said...

It always bugs me how I get in my car each day to drive to a trail so that I can walk for an hour. My subdivision has sidewalks, but beyond its boundaries, you're on your own. We live about a mile from my kids' elementary school--an ideal walk, and, done twice a day, a great start on avoiding some of the hazards of childhood obesity. Except! No sidewalks! And when I suggested to the principal that she should make it her mission to advocate with the county for them, she merely rolled her eyes like this was the least of her worries when the district already has an ample fleet of busses. Crap.

Trailhead said...

Kristy, exactly. It's kind of silly.

Suburban communities could be arranged in walkable segments. So, for example, the entirety of north Coeur d'Alene wouldn't have to be networked with sidewalks, but it would be nice if we started arranging communities so that, for each group of homes, you could walk to the schools, a few of the most critical businesses, such as groceries, and a public transport hub.

I know they've started doing this in north Portland. I worked on a mixed-income neighborhood project this summer with Habitat based on this very concept, and it was lovely. Homes of varying size and value arranged carefully around a network of sidewalks with critical businesses and schools close by, a community center for the kids, and playgrounds sprinkled here and there.

Tony said...

I haven't eaten at a BV since you left. It just doesn't seem right.

You need to come back for a visit so we can partake!

Oh yeah, for Mr. T, we can do Chipotle, too!

Trailhead said...

Mmmm, Burgerville....Free range turkey burger....shakes made of local berries....

I'll be there in six hours.

Anonymous said...

I LOOOOOOOOOVE Chipotle! I guess that's one good thing about Chicago is it's not uncommon to walk everywere, or to drive your bike through busy traffic. Personally when I am in the car the Bike riders always make me nervouse. But walking to coffee shops? No prob. Not to mention there is a Starbucks on every frikkin corner! And an ATM Machine, A burger place, doggie spa.

We don't have that many Bohemian foo foo coffee shops anymore because Starbucks put them out in the cold :-(


Trailhead said...

Mr. T is the original Chipotle addict. Tony and I like Chipotle fine and all, but Mr. T is nearly irrational about it. Back when we were still in Portland, Tony and I came very close to betting Mr. T that he couldn't eat there every day for thirty days, but we stopped short because we realized WE didn't want to eat there every day for thirty days.

Are you that bad?

Anonymous said...

No not that bad. You know what I think it is? I think it's the Cilantro. I LOVE Cilantro and salsa with extra cilantro. I will get chipotle if I'm walking in that direction basically. My real weekness is a Moresland Jamaican Jerk chicken sand. Mmmmmmm. And if the Jamaican chef is there? I promis you you will never ever eat a better chicken sandwitch. It's sooo good that you don't need Ketchup or Mayonnaise or anything on it because it would take away from the wonderful taste.


Anonymous said...

If anyone is ever in Chicago on the north side