Wheels are vastly different than legs. Give wheels smooth, wide, straight, and solid turf, and they can reach speeds not even legs attached to a cheetah can reach. This is particularly true when the turf is wide enough to support four wheels connected to a mechanical engine. On the other hand, legs can climb stairs, step over obstacles, negotiate narrow spaces, and take their cargo places wheels can’t go at any speed. Legs can travel a short and straight line where wheels require a lengthy zig-zag route.
Shortcuts that take advantage of the unique capabilities of bipedal mobility are incredibly helpful for people opting to walk or bike instead of drive, especially utilitarian walking or biking such as going to the store, to work, or to public transit. It goes further: pedestrian or bike shortcut paths are an important amenity to attract residents to transit oriented denser neighborhoods. Unfortunately, driving will remain the default transportation choice in most places in the U.S. until dramatic changes are attained in our urban landscape. Therefore, getting people out of their cars and on their feet requires preserving and creating opportunities that give walking (or biking) a “leg up” on driving.
So why are we planning pedestrian and bike routes along the same routes we plan for cars? Why are we blocking pedestrian short cuts at the slightest provocation? Are pedestrian paths and transit access being managed by people who only walk for exercise or to give Rover a bladder break? Sometimes it seems so. The following are some examples of bipedal transportation opportunities and missed opportunities.
Stairs and alleys:
Hillsides create excellent opportunities to create stairs that cut through zig-zagging roads along a straight and comparatively short route. While not useful for biking, they are almost like Star Trek teletransporters that “beam” walkers past the lengthy car route. Many communities that developed before the car became the predominant mode of travel feature stairs, alleys, and trails. However, new communities with the same topography typically lack such amenities and provide only sidewalks following the same route as the roads for bipedal mobility.
Top concerns for property owners are privacy, quiet, and security. These concerns apply equally to roads for cars as they due to pedestrian or bike paths. However, roads and paths are not equally effected by these concerns. Our society is calibrated to accommodate the automobile. Thus, the needs of drivers (a large interest group) balances the concerns of property owners. Not so for pedestrians and cyclists, who still constitute a relatively small and weak minority. This is particularly true of utilitarian or destination pedestrians, i.e., those who opt for walking instead of driving to perform some necessary daily function. In contrast, people who walk simply for exercise, pleasure, or for their pet’s benefit are much more able to alter their route because the destination is secondary or of no importance. As a result, complaints or concerns by property owners or businesses often result in the erection of a fence, gate, or other closing-off of the pedestrian or cyclist path. Transit stations also become targets for fencing-off by adjacent residents or businesses who view some of the ridership with suspicion, rightly or wrongly, as was the case in the photo to the right. Such fencing-off limits the convenience and accessibility of the transit station, ultimately effecting transit ridership.
Deterioration and neglect:
In as much as many pedestrian paths were created in a bygone era, they are subject to deterioration. Sometimes a section of path or stairs will collapse, erode, grow-over, rot, or be deemed unsafe by some public agency. With limited funding and many demands, public agencies often opt for closing or removing the path. For example, a Southeast San Diego resident told me of a trail that served as the shortest route to a light rail station. A key feature of the trail were some wooden stairs that descended a steep bluff but which had rotted and become unsafe. The transit agency (or perhaps the city) removed the stairs rather than repair them. Community members are now required to walk a much longer route to the station alongside the street grid, which undoubtedly has resulted in some transit rider attrition.
Sidewalks are meant to be pedestrian amenities, although one often wonders whether they are really more for driver convenience, i.e., to remove walkers from the road. The older neighborhood where I live is characterized by narrow streets and relatively sedate automobile traffic. Walkers can often be seen walking in the street rather than on the sidewalk – apparently the road is a better walking experience.
The fundamental flaw of sidewalks is that they are essentially clip-ons to routes made to serve automobiles, i.e., wheeled rather than bi-pedal travel. Thus, opportunities to create short cuts for unique bipedal abilities are forfeited. No place is this circumstance more starkly contrasted than in my own neighborhood in La Mesa California. We live on a hill, half of which is developed with homes and streets built between the turn of the 19th century and WWII. The other half is developed with post war homes – more than half of those were built in the new millennium. The old half consists of narrow streets, sporadic and inconsistent sidewalks, and three sets of stairs / alleys that shortcut the streets and provide a wonderful amenity for getting to the commercial main-street at the bottom of the hill, various schools and churches, and to light rail (the “Trolley”). It is a better and more efficient walking experience than the sidewalks. The newer development half of the hill consists of wider streets (and faster traffic), sidewalks on both sides of all streets, and no pedestrian alleys or stairs. At the bottom of the hill is a park (including a playground) and several schools spanning preschool through high school. Before the newest residential tract was built, many students walked over and down the hill to get to the park or schools. However, the new homes were built, apparently, without a thought given to the beloved stairs in the adjacent older neighborhood. As a result of this missed opportunity, walking to school or the park can now be measured in miles instead of feet, following a circuitous vehicular route while the schools and park are a stone’s throw as the crow flies – a big missed opportunity for the many families with children occupying the new homes. Parents who live in new homes adjacent to the park often drive their children to use the playground. Pedestrian paths are narrow and would not have required a sacrifice of much salable property – and thus this missed opportunity was truly senseless.
The common thread among the foregoing examples is that the pedestrian amenities are old and the barriers are new. The amenities were planned and built when walking, other than for leisure, exercise, or walking the dog, was a common experience. The barriers, missed opportunities, and flawed amenities arise in the current era when walking as an alternative to driving is a theoretical construct lacking practical experience among developers, planners, and community members. Additionally, there is constant tension between private property owners, who naturally oppose public access near their property, and the public who use the access. However, car access has a built-up constituency that balances out the private property interests. In comparison, pedestrian and cyclist constituencies, if they exist, are still in their infancy in most places, and are unable to withstand private efforts to cut-off access. Thus we are left with pedestrian routes that are planned for wheels rather than legs.
It is essential to “unsprawling” our urbanized landscape, and to curb climate change, that planning and transit agencies vigilantly guard existing bipedal access and for communities to seize opportunities to plan new pedestrian and bike routes that take advantage of the unique advantages of bipedal mobility – to shortcut and by-pass automobile routes rather than simply run alongside them. Perhaps what is needed is something akin to the California Coast Commission – to vigorously protect pedestrian and active transit access.