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Pedal Pusher
January 2009
by Greg Knepp
greg_knepp@email.com

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Walkability
It's as simple as putting one foot in front of the other

© Photo by Adsel Wood

longer shadows, shorter days winter...and old age.
Rick Klaus Theis
Most of us are tempted to think of urban planning as a fairly recent cultural phenomenon – an offspring of the modern era perhaps. In fact, urban planning is quite ancient. The Mesopotamians and Egyptians built cities with well laid-out paved streets, open market spaces, defensive walls, separate districts for religious and governmental buildings, even drainage systems. The construction of planned cities took a hiatus during the Middle Ages but was resumed with the reestablishment of strong central governments that followed the Renaissance. The best cities have always been those that combined thoughtful planning on the grand scale with organic development of the details – hence Paris.

The sad truth, though, is that the twentieth century, with all its technical potential, was a terrible time for cities, particularly in America. After WWII the primary considerations of urban planners seem to have been (1.) highway construction and parking, and (2.) putting poor people in cheap, segregated housing projects. As individual wealth grew, the suburbs flourished, along with the ethos that every man could be master of his own estate. Any considerations of a ‘public sector’ virtually disappeared. As the automobile gained dominance (allowing even folks of meager incomes to partake of the happy motoring religion) distances expanded along with waistlines, and modes of local transportation such as cycling and walking were largely abandoned. Except in the larger eastern cities, even mass transit became regarded as a conveyance for losers. Little wonder then that, to this day, millions of suburban children walk to school daily, either in the streets or across the front yards of their neighbors – no sidewalks!

Most in-town residents, however, have had the advantage of living in areas built before the advent (or at least the dominance) of the mighty automobile. In the Short North we tout this new designation, this Walkable Neighborhood label, forgetting that, for thousands of years, every neighborhood in every city and town was walkable.

But how walkable? Well, there are two main types of walkers: transportational and recreational; some walkers fit into both categories. I lived in Baltimore for a few decades and walked everywhere. Even though I love cycling, walking was my main form of transportation. Because of its largely unspoiled antiquity, Baltimore is a great walking town. But with hills, narrow main streets and cantankerous drivers, it’s not at all bike friendly. Columbus is the opposite – straight roads in combination with friendly, narrow side streets and an overall flat terrain make Columbus as ideal a cycling city as you’re going to find in America. But too much has been made of the compatibility of walking and cycling. Both modes are human powered, but that’s where the similarity ends. In the final analysis, a bicycle is a mechanical vehicle and must be regarded as one. Good cycling conditions and good walking conditions are not necessarily mutually inclusive.

So it is in Columbus where walking is not always as easy as cycling. Individual in-town neighborhoods are walkable, but the connectivity isn’t there. My neighbor, Lynda McClannahan, is a transportational walker. Her observations are instructive: “You can’t really walk to Grandview; Olentangy River Road is like a moat separating the neighborhoods. The same is true when you walk Downtown; south of Goodale Avenue everything changes and the cars take over. Downtown just doesn’t seem to work on the human scale, and drivers lose their awareness of pedestrians. Cell phone drivers are really a menace too!”

I agree. On my occasional recreational walks – usually Sunday morning outings – I instinctively head north. I meander around Campus for awhile and normally end up in a coffee shop somewhere in Clintonville. But where can you get a cup of coffee Downtown on Sunday? It’s all parking lots and towers. Even without the weekday traffic, Downtown Columbus is a pretty inhospitable place. Yes, there are some encouraging stirrings on Gay Street and some plans are afoot for mid-priced town homes on Front Street. But these are postage stamp solutions in a dreary asphalt desert. And yes, Nationwide is planning a large residential project in the Arena District complete with shops, eateries and the like. There will certainly be easy walking within the development, but will said development really be connected to the larger urban setting or will it merely be an exurb plopped Downtown – like Easton, except in the middle of the city and with stacked parking? Attempts to attract suburbanites to the inner city by replicating suburbia (urban design motifs notwithstanding) have usually met with failure; consider City Center, for example. In fact, those who require ample parking and easy motoring access are the exact people who would be best left out of the urban residential rebirth. They don’t belong. They simply don’t get it.

One must conclude then that walkability means more than just so many government and corporate overtures to fuzzy concepts like “pedestrian accessability” or “multi-modal transportation initiatives“. It must start with the proposition that walking, as a serious form of transportation, is not something that needs to be planned, but will emerge as a natural outgrowth of diverse, mixed-use community settings. People are bipedal and most will gladly walk if walking is an obvious and convenient way to get from point A to point B. This means, however, that the workplace, the market, the bar, the beauty salon and the movie theater need to be down the street – not across town! The trick is to plan communities wisely, but avoid over-planning. Avoid grandiosity. And for God sake put traffic-flow and parking considerations on the back burner for a change! As for bicycles, let them use existing streets like all the other vehicles. Some of our societal problems are enormously complex. Walkability is not one of them. It’s as simple as putting one foot in front of the other.

It seems unlikely that the architects and engineers of Ur or Alexandria gave much thought to walkability while designing their cities. Walking was not an issue back then; it was taken for granted; people walked and that was that!… Ah, the good old days.

Greg Knepp is a Short North cyclist
greg_knepp@email.com

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