Sunday, April 15, 2012

Plodding Along

Slate recently ran a series on walking in the US. Illuminating and excellent as I find Tom Vanderbilt's writings and musing on people moving from one place to another, though, I can't say I was terribly surprised by anything in the series: basically, in 98% of the US, you can't walk anywhere, the result of a colossal failure on the behalf of city planners for the last 50 years.

The reason why Americans don't walk, basically, is that there's nowhere they can get to. It's not safe, or else things are too spread out. Everything in the suburbs is a 10-minute drive away; or else it's surrounded by acres of blacktop. Sidewalks end at freeways. And bus stops are placed in ridiculous places--on the side of the road, where there is no sidewalk, no crosswalk, and nothing in sight.

All of which makes the issues being tackled by Vanderbilt seem like one of those problems that rich people have: you're hungry, but your butler has a day off. Studying the movements of people is a fascinating subject--fluid dynamics in crowd format--as is examining the pattern of air flow around tall buildings, to better understand how not to create wind tunnels. But they don't address the main problem, which is that people only walk when they feel like they can get somewhere without becoming road kill. And where the one is possible, usually the second is not.

Ironically, the Netherlands seem to have imported the pedestrian issues from the US, in the form of housing complexes featuring cookie-cutter houses with nowhere to go, and where you need a car or a bus to take you to the nearest city. They're being built with gusto around Utrecht, but also around Nijmegen and Zwolle. Now, undoubtedly, this being the Netherlands, they'll probably have a small supermarket and a modest collection of stores scattered around a central point, so it'll still be possible to run most of your errands on foot. But I can't but think it deeply ironic, though, that the life I enjoy so much here--being able to bike and walk everywhere--is somehow becoming old-fashioned, even as the US tries desperately to emulate it.

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