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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Slate Series on American Walking

Last week, there was a four part series posted on Slate by on pedestrians in the US. The four parts, with key points noted, are as follows. I've added a few side notes of my own observations.
Part I: The Crisis in American Walking
Part II: Sidewalk Science 
Part III: What's Your Walk Score 
Part IV: Learning to Walk

Part I: The Crisis in American Walking

  • Pedestrians are currently an afterthought in transportation planning. Interestingly, it's only when someone interacts with other traffic that the person becomes a pedestrian.
  • Nevertheless, walking brings a lot of benefits. They include a reduced chance of developing Alzheimer's disease, better academic performance in children, increased intelligence, reduced depression and blood pressure, and increased self-esteem.
  • We walk the least of all industrial countries, with an average of 5,117 steps a day, compared to a supposed ideal of 10,000 steps a day.
  • As with lots of other physical activity, walking has been engineered out-of-existence.
  • People used to walk much more: around 18,000 steps a day for the Old Order Amish - used as an estimate of how things used to be 150 years ago.
  • In the UK, walking has declined by a quarter. But it has declined more here in large part due to increased miles driven, and people living further away from destinations.
  • Interestingly, commuting composes of less than 15% of all trips.
  • 28% of trips are a mile or less, yet more than 50% of such trips are taken by car!
  • Walking as a cultural thing is "missing from the cultural mindset."
  • People are now demanding that towns be more walkable.
Part II: Sidewalk Science

  • Interestingly, pedestrians behave in a bunch of predictable patterns that can and have been modeled.
  • People tend to be exertion-averse. Given five flights of stairs, only 4% of people choose to take them if another choice is available. Escalators actually do not increase efficiency in terms of throughput versus stairs. People are much more likely to take stairs downward than upward.
  • People tend to choose the shortest path.
  • For stairs and escalators, the most dangerous sections are their tops and bottoms.
Part III: What's Your Walk Score
  • Walk Score puts a number between 0 to 100 on any location based upon how walkable it is, and its proximity to amenities such as shops, parks, and the like using a proprietary algorithm. The scheme is not without its own flaws though.
  • Possible paradox: people want to live in places that are very walkable; yet at the same time people tend to prefer living in single family houses that are spread out.
  • The largest 2500 cities in the US have an average score of 43, in other words, we're currently car-dependent.
  • At the same time, urban housing is expensive, suggesting that people really want it, but it's become unaffordable. Apparently one Walk Score point is worth $500-$3000.
  • The people are also working on a Bike Score.
Part IV: Learning to Walk
  • The notorious Georgia case of Raquel Nelson, who was charged with vehicular homicide for walking across busy Austell Rd with her son who was struck and killed, is symptomatic of some of the main problems. The road had traffic at 60 mph, and the nearest crosswalk to their apartment was 1/3rd of a mile away.
  • When it comes to transit, people tend to not want to walk more than a fifth to a fourth of a mile to catch it. (My side note: for cyclists who combine transit with cycling, the equivalent with regards to time would be around one mile.)
  • The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) has noted that “bus stops should be positioned in locations that serve the highest numbers of pedestrians, minimize total walking distance, and reduce the number of roadway crossings for pedestrians.”
  • "Goat paths," or equivalently "desire lines" show that people will try to shave distance off of pedestrian trips.
  • Sidewalks used to be placed away from the roadway. But then they were placed next to roadways starting in the 1930s-1940s to be more forgiving to driver error. Many roads were not engineered to be walked.
  • Suburban arterials, due in part to their high speed, are surprisingly hazardous relative to crowded urban streets.
  • Often, previously rural places are built without sidewalks since there is "no need" for them; then the place gets built up, and then there is no place to place them. (Another side note: this problem can be addressed by acquiring sufficient right-of-way when the road is built so that sidewalks can be added in the future when the need arises.)
  • Funding-wise, there is not any dedicated federal pedestrian funding. Although TIGER ( Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) or T.E. (Transportation Enhancements) have provided funds for walking and bicycling, there is not a specific amount going toward pedestrian projects. In 2009, 2% of federal transportation funds went toward walking and cycling projects. These modes are 12% of trips and 13% of fatalities.
  • The dominant transportation mentality was to design roads for maximizing the number of cars that could flow, which led to less people walking, which led to more cars in a vicious cycle.
  • A four-foot sidewalk next to a high-speed travel lane will not result in people walking there. (Side note: why not? Is it a feeling of discomfort? Would a 5 ft sidewalk change things? What if there were sidewalks on both sides of the street, reducing the number of opposite-direction pedestrian conflicts?)
  • But a bigger issue, relative to the lack of sidewalks, is bad intersections. They can have too much traffic, too much speed, and have poor geometry.
  • Cul-de-sacs tend to have little traffic, but ironically lead one able to go nowhere.
  • The busier the mall walkiing scene, the worse the conditions for walking in town are.
  • Directly quoted from the article because it's particularly well written: It is true that Americans tend to inhabit lower density regions than people do in Europe, but as a study by transportation researcher Ralph Buehler and colleagues found, Germans who live in lower density regions travel by car about as much as Americans living in areas that are five times denser. Germans walk more for a range of reasons: better walking facilities, better connections with transit, better transit (which itself encourages more walking), stronger financial incentives (e.g., higher gas prices), better land-use decisions, and because it’s safer to walk in Germany than in the United States. Even Canada, whose broad geography might imply more car trips than in the United States, walks or cycles twice as much as we do.
  • Complete Streets is the idea that the streets are there for everybody, not just drivers.
  • Since resources are finite, countermeasures should be placed where there are the most crashes.
  • In terms of health, both preventative (anti-obesity), and direct (with injuries/deaths), a cost/benefit analysis should consider these broader costs. Four years of pedestrian injury in San Francisco cost $20 million, with 75% of that charged to the public.
  • Countermeasures that work well are pedestrian countdown timers. Pedestrian bridges are expensive, and have their own problems. They can hamper development in their own way.
  • Finally, it's interesting how people tend to use alternative transportation most, and find it enjoyable, when on vacation. "Few people choose to spend that precious free time on an automotive tour of a sprawling exurb. (“Look, another big-box store!”)"Why not seek to recreate such in one's daily lives?

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