Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Communities That Walk

Recently a fellow pedestrian/bicycle/transit advocate checked and learned that his address in the Williamson Street neighborhood of Madison, Wisconsin rated a score of 91 – “highly walkable”. Unfortunately, one of his rewards for choosing to live where a top-notch rating is possible is to endure exceptionally high levels of automobile traffic – much of it generated by the tens of thousands of Madison-area commuters who regularly drive through his part of the Isthmus but reside where Walkscores are lower, often much lower. This is typical for "walkable" neighborhoods in most cities and villages in the United States.

Typical but not right. If things were fair, those with high Walkscores – especially those who actually walked a lot – would be rewarded with automobile traffic as light and calm as, say, the private streets of the gated golf course community in my village…or the secluded country estates occupied by ultra-high-VMT exurbanites scattered throughout nominally-rural Dane County. (This is a major, albeit seldom acknowledged, social/environmental justice issue, comparable to – and often correlating with – racial and socio-economic segregation.)

Even so, does not begin to tell the whole story. There is often a huge chasm between potential and reality.

Case in point: my wife and I reside in one of Madison’s numerous bedroom suburbs – the Village of Oregon, population 8,807. Despite being much smaller than Madison, and despite the prevailing suburban character, Walkscore for our street address is 69 – relatively good. In fact I can’t think of many places in Madison where it would be more convenient to bicycle and walk to the grocery store, K-12 schools, preschool, playgrounds, parks, playing fields, library, coffee shop, hardware store, pharmacies, church, vet, post office, copy/shipping shop, barber, etc. We have an absurd number of bank branches within ½ mile, a decent variety of restaurants, health clubs, and so on. Oh, our dentist is less than two blocks away; eye doctor is three, and family medical provider is a bit over four.

Unusual for Oregon? Absolutely not. Given the abundance and variety of frequented destinations here, and the spatial arrangements of destinations and residences, I would guess that more than a quarter of Village residents would have comparable Walkscores. Moreover, Oregon has plenty of sidewalks, crosswalks, and traffic signals with pedestrian-activated buttons. We even have a fairly extensive system of bike lanes and paths for a municipality of our size.

Despite all these “walkability” features, the ratio of driving-age Village residents who drive rather than walk or bike to destinations within the Village itself is probably 50:1 or more. Why? If proximities and infrastructure were the primary factors in the mode-split equation, Oregon’s streets and sidewalks would be buzzing with self-locomoted human beings. They are not.

Thus we must look elsewhere for causality: our norms and expectations; our automobile-scaled perception of time and distance; our sense of entitlement to the convenience, comfort, and security of our own multi-ton armored personnel carrier. And looming above all of these factors is our obstinate refusal to confront yet another inconvenient truth: lifestyles rooted in automobile dependence poison the ground against the growth of a human-scale culture where it is safe, practical, convivial, and – most of all – normal to walk and bike and use transit. Automobile dependence in Oregon, as in most of Dane County, is near-total and incredibly tenacious. Despite five years of crusading here I have not made any noticeable dent in mode split, not even among "sustainability" types. I suspect many advocates elsewhere feel just as impotent. Why?

I believe one big reason is that we often undermine our efforts with the vocabulary we use. We usually talk about the characteristics of things (streets, neighborhoods, cars, etc.) rather than focusing on behaviors – and the responsibilities of citizens. Terms like "walkable", "bicycle-friendly", and "transit-supportive density" are like bumper stickers: in and of themselves they make absolutely no difference. Meanwhile our use of such language tacitly-but-inexorably diverts our perception of causality away from human beings.

God help us, we need pedestrian-oriented people. Bicycle-oriented people. Transit-oriented people. We cannot zone these people into existence or force them into existence by blocking automobile-centric developments. Hell, such people cannot even consume themselves into existence by shopping in the Green Aisle! Thus our challenge is to create people who vote with their feet. When that happens, the places we seek will occur.

How to create such people? Not by telling them that someone else is to blame for America's auto-addicted way of life; that someone else owes them easy solutions; that someone else has the power to make a truly-green "Transportation/Access Revolution" happen.

First we must show people how their choices and behaviors – in combination with our own – literally create our community week-by-week and year-by-year. We must emphasize that we all have much to learn, and that to succeed we need the kinds of wisdom that can only be gained from experience. Thus we must challenge people to just get out there and begin occupying their communities as human beings again. Choose at least one thing they do on a regular basis via car, and do it..or them…without a car. No excuses. No waiting. No passing the buck. Experience what-is. Let it soak in. Start to imagine what-might-be. Then take the next step – literally.

So long as well-meaning people remain behind those damned windshields (waiting for third-party “solutions”), they will not learn the first thing about what we-the-people collectively must do to create…not "walkable communities"…but “communities that walk"; communities that bike; and communities that have enough of us walking and biking to make transit viable. Hello! Habitat follows behavior.


Beländil Calenimbreth said...

I agree, Bergamont is a cancer upon the town. Oregon sold itself for some more tax revenue. The village is constantly trying to get people to shop downtown but instead creates sprawl.

Oregon is surprisingly walkable (provided you live in the older parts of town). the main problem is the lack of a public transportation link to Madison. Verona has a bus line to Madison; Oregon does not. Light rail may be a bit of overkill in this situation, but the tracks exist.

HanZiBoi said...

Belandil - the Bergamont is exactly the kind of development that municipalities and school districts find themseles unable to resist. Why? THey are engaged in an endless quest to pay for existing services with new sources of revenue. If you think Big Businesses are addicted to growth, you ain't seen nothing - units of governments are the worst!

You agree that Oregon is surprisingly walkable. So where are the self-locomoted people? Public transportation to Madison won't make any difference for people who won't walk a half-mile to the library or grocery store.

If anything is going to change here before the SHTF (and I'm loosing hope), we will have to confront behavior big-time.