No discussion of the changes we need to make in urban design would be complete without mentioning walking. On this topic, I am inspired by a recent four part series in Slate, which points out how far behind Americans are compared to many other countries in the walking department, and how far we have strayed from sensible design principles that would make our cities more walkable. Particularly poignant in the Slate series is the story of the mother who lost a four year old child in the process of trying to cross an impossible high speed boulevard in front of her apartment complex. Also the picture of an overweight 12 year old who is indulgently driven down her long driveway to catch the school bus. In countless ways, we are trained to disdain walking, and our cities and towns are mostly designed to discourage the practice.
Perhaps because I lived in New York City for a long time, I favor walking (and public transportation). But here in LA, my family has to risk our lives to cross the busy boulevard near our house, where cars routinely speed by at 50 miles per hour in a 35 mile per hour zone. Every day I am reminded of pedestrians' second class status in this city when I have to push buttons to activate crossing signals. These buttons exist solely for the purpose of speeding traffic at the expense of pedestrians. I think it would be a great day when drivers are required to push a button to cross an intersection. (Okay, maybe that's not a practical idea, but I'd still like to see it happen.)
A lot of intersections here do not have signals or crosswalks, which makes
crossing the street an adventure. Construction crews are allowed to
block sidewalks in Los Angeles, something that would be inconceivable in
New York City. That forces pedestrians into the street, or into taking inconvenient detours across the street. And even where sidewalks
exist, they are often in a shameful state of disrepair. In some places,
the roots of the ubiquitous ficus trees have created dangerous, jagged
hills and valleys requiring a constant state of vigilance.
Many buildings in this city are designed to be entered mainly through the parking
garage. I was shocked to discover that the building I'm thinking of moving my office to, has no door on the street level, only an elevator. I sometimes search in vain for staircases in buildings designed to force people to take an elevator even if they only need to ride up a floor or two. Often the only available stair is an emergency fire exit, that may or may not allow you to re-enter on the floor you want. I also admit to getting impatient when people stand two abreast blocking escalator steps, forcing those of us who don't like to break our stride to stop and wait behind them. When I notice that some of the people standing on escalator steps are on the way to or from the health club, I am especially irritated.
We could solve many problems by encouraging walking. We could reduce the national obesity epidemic, and improve our general health, saving billions in health care expenses. We would also save tons of gasoline. We would greatly reduce pollution and noise. Cities would be friendlier and more liveable. Really, there is no down side to my plan to encourage more walking. All it takes is a change in attitude on the part of everyone who uses the streets, as well as the people who design them.