A Voice for Walking A Voice for Walking

From Tony Hull, Nonmotorized Planning & Evaluation Analyst

Nothing is more exciting than seeing a toddler learn to walk and  navigate his or her surroundings on two feet. The look of the world changes and the real adventure thus begins.

baby walking Credit Diesel Demon
credit: Diesel Demon

Perhaps less celebrated and often overlooked is a more dubious achievement in life, learning how not to walk. We live in a society where for the most part we have gone to great lengths and significant investment to avoid having to walk. Is it far-fetched to imagine a world where grown adults need to learn how to walk again? Some would say we are already there.

Slate.com series on Walking
Slate.com series on Walking

A compelling series of essays by Tom Vanderbilt on Slate.com explores this question from the lens of investigative journalism. Vanderbilt is known as the author of the blog, How We Drive, and the bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published in 2008. A journalist and former writer for Rolling Stone, Vanderbilt spent three years researching American transportation habits, policies and practices before writing his groundbreaking assessment of modern transportation and how it influences every aspect of our modern society.

Like Jane Goodall studying the social order of chimpanzees, Tom Vanderbilt has conducted a thoughtful investigation of modern transportation culture as it has evolved into a social, environmental, economic, and public health crisis.   

Bike WALK Twin Cities

Here at Bike Walk Twin Cities (BWTC) we’ve invested our energy and resources for the past five years in trying to turn the tide toward more active transportation, administering $28 million from the Federal Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program (NTPP). The NTPP, established in SAFETEA-LU in 2005, set aside funding to demonstrate the extent that bicycling and walking can carry a significant part of the transportation solution.

During the life of the Bike Walk program bicycling has grabbed most headlines and attention, with new bicycle facilities, bike sharing and a bicycling community that has become mobilized and vocal in the local transportation dialog. 

Lost in the mix are the expanded benefits for walking that are coming from the Bike Walk Twin Cities pilot. Many of the low-cost on-street bicycle facilities are improving conditions for walkers by shifting bicyclists from our busy sidewalks (see New Bike Lanes Mean Safer Sidewalks PDF).Traffic calming features along new bike routes, such as curb bump outs and medians, also create a more hospitable environment for walking.

curb and median along River Lake Greenway

To date results are promising, with walking increasing 18% between 2007 and 2011. The City of Minneapolis’ new Pedestrian Master Plan, funded in part by BWTC, sets out a framework for a first class walking city. The Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center already designated Minneapolis as a gold level Walk-Friendly Community.

But we’ve lacked, locally and nationally, a strong voice for walking and a movement to position walkability at the center of our community vision. Sure, we have champions for Complete Streets, and the City of Minneapolis has a new bike/ped coordinator and a Pedestrian Advisory Committee, but there is not organized advocacy for walking in Minnesota.

Perhaps Tom Vanderbilt is giving voice to a movement. Just maybe his essays will get the walking movement on its feet before it's too late.