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Walking in America: Has It Been 'Engineered Out of Existence?'

Slate, the online magazine, is running a deep-thinking, 4-part series on walking in America by author Tom Vanderbilt. If, like me, you perceive that walking has become, to our collective detriment, an undervalued aspect of the human experience, you might find the series to be worthwhile reading.

"To examine how Americans might start walking more again may seem like a hopelessly retrograde, romantic exercise: nostalgia for Thoreau's woodland ambles," Vanderbilt writes in Part 1, The Crisis in American Walking: How we got off the pedestrian path. "But the need is urgent. The decline of walking has become a full-blown public health nightmare."

A week ago this space noted that April 4 was an obscure ceremonial occasion known as National Walking Day. In my post I cited several quotations from the splendid book Wanderlust: A History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit. Vanderbilt, a longtime observer of American transit and author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, cites Solnit when explaining what we as a species lose when we minimize walking in our daily pursuits:

"Walking still covers the ground between cars and buildings and the short distances within the latter, but walking as a cultural activity, as a pleasure, as travel, as a way of getting around, is fading, and with it goes an ancient and profound relationship between body, world, and imagination."

Vanderbilt refers to studies that show the United States walks the least of any industrialized nation, principally because "walking has been engineered out of existence."

In Part 2 of his series, Sidewalk Science: The peculiar habits of the pedestrian, explained, published today, I was surprised to learn that in Japan walking on escalators was banned at one point. Interesting. If my only option in an airport is an escalator, and the path ahead is clear, I routinely walk on escalators. Moving sidewalks, too. (Those are especially fun; I dream of being able to hike at that pace on backcountry trails when views are blocked by trees.)

How about you? Do walk on escalators? Or, if you're carrying nothing cumbersome and have the choice of using stairs or an escalator, which do you choose? Vanderbilt's article says about 4 percent choose stairs. Vanderbilt notes that escalators do not actually improve efficiency and quotes foot-travel expert Jeff Zupan: "If you count the per square foot width on an escalator, plus the acceptance rate"—i.e., how willing people are to stand near each other—"it's about the same as stairs."

Interesting stuff. Additional installments in the series will be published Thursday and Friday.

Posted on at 8:59 PM

Tagged: walking

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GouldBowman

Interesting. Never thought about it that way. I walk-bike to work every day. I may drive to the office 1-2 days a month. It has been motivated mainly by gas prices. I moved closer to work so that I could take advantage of walking-biking more often, for my health knowing that I don't exercise as much as I should.

When walking in an airport, I tend to take the lazy route.. moving sidewalk or escalator because after walking for the past 2 years everyday, I take advantage of not walking when I can.

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UWS REI addict

As hard as it can be to enjoy being outdoors as a Manhattanite, I walk more here than anywhere else I've lived - including rural Pennsylvania, the Greek islands, and northern Virginia. There's a sense of engagement in your neighborhood and wandering into friends on the street that really adds variety to your day, and I average about 10 miles a week.

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UWS REI addict

As hard as it can be to enjoy being outdoors as a Manhattanite, I walk more here than anywhere else I've lived - including rural Pennsylvania, the Greek islands, and northern Virginia. There's a sense of engagement in your neighborhood and wandering into friends on the street that really adds variety to your day, and I average about 10 miles a week.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Thanks for the comments, folks. This being April 12 as I write this, Part 3 of Vanderbilt's series has been published, a look at the work of Walk Score, a company that evaluates the "walkability" of neighborhoods and cities worldwide. (To access it, click the one of the links to Part 1 or Part 2 in the post above.) A key question Vanderbilt raises in his third installment: Do Americans want sidewalks in front of their houses and actual places to walk to—"Leave the car in the garage!" is a common refrain on real estate sites—or are Americans happy, as transportation analyst Alan Pisarski puts it, to "drive to where they can walk?"

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macdanny Staff Member

Having a dog is a sure fire way of getting some extra walking in every day. My pal and I walk a couple of miles nearly every day. It's a great way of seeing your neighborhood and meeting your neighbors.

Walkies!

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scandal44

a great question! Where I live, SW Washington, I would say yes. We have an immense amount of space and therefore the community / cities continue to spread out. The result is nothing being located near each other where you can live, shop, relax, enjoy life all in the same general area.

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T.D. Wood Staff Member

Thanks again for all the comments. The final installment in Vanderbilt's series ("Learning to Walk: How America can start walking again") became available on April 13. In it Vanderbilt looks at the challenges of motorized and pedestrian traffic struggle to coexist, and he takes a look at the "Complete Streets" movement, rooted in the concept that the public road should be intended for more than one mode of transportation. Much food for thought in this series. Access any of the 4 parts by clicking in the links to Part 1 or Part 2 found in the post above. Thanks for reading.

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