Thursday, January 25, 2007


In a small town without public transportation (semi-rural sprawl, it could be called), getting into one's car or mini-van or pickup-truck or SUV to drive a mile or two to "the store" seems to most people as necessary and unremarkable as breathing. My wife Elaine and I prefer to walk, whenever possible, to do this sort of errand. And we thus become, at times, figures who prompt curiosity. For we are simply walking, not in exercise clothing but, more conspicuously, in what my high-school gym teacher used to call "street clothes." People tell us that they saw us walking back from the grocery store and wondered if our car was in the shop. Then, they say, they realized that we were just walking.

Our town is not friendly to walkers. The traffic signals at our major intersection (which spans four lanes of traffic and two turning lanes) flash WALK only briefly before beginning to hammer out a warning. Even the fastest of walkers (me) cannot cover more than three lanes before the warning begins. A major thoroughfare near our college has nothing more than a flashing yellow light to make it easier for people to cross, and for most drivers yellow seems to mean Keep Going, Don't Slow Down -- certainly not Yield.

And speaking of college -- college students are about the only people in town for whom walking is a standard mode of transportation. In our elite subdivisions, one can drive on street after street and never see a biped. In my more modest neighborhood, there are many people whom I have never seen leaving the area on foot.

The saddest indication of our town’s preference for wheels: the only parts of town with significant foot traffic (older streets with student-rental properties) are also the parts with the poorest sidewalks.

[Photograph by Rachel Leddy]

Related, antithetical reading

A city before cars (Sign Language)

comments: 3

Lee said...

When my then 15-year-old spent part of the summer with family friends in Washington D.C., her first telephone remark about the teens in the house: 'They drive the two or three blocks to visit their friends! Yet they do lots of sport.'

Jason said...

This is true! Charleston is not very walking friendly, although everything in town is within walking distance. The sidewalks going from campus to the square are in pretty bad shape if I remember correctly.

I lived in an even smaller town for a few years and would often ride my bike to school and would get asked if my car was in the shop. I guess it's not normal to ride a bike or walk to work -- but it sure is fun.

Michael Leddy said...

Jason, you'll be surprised to know that the sidewalks on Sixth and Seventh Streets are being redone. Fourth though is still is sad shape, and I don't think there are immediate plans to improve it.

Lee, I like hearing about young people for whom walking is an ordinary thing. Thanks. (I'm not sure how I missed your comment back in January.)