Culture | Hit the road

Making our cities pedestrian-friendly again

Since Henry Ford whipped out the first Model T in 1908, owning a car and migrating to the suburbs have grown to symbolize the affluent and comfortable lifestyle that families strive for. Once citizens began to purchase automobiles, they shifted out of cities and into sprawling neighbourhoods. With this came a corresponding shift away from walking. Luckily, as urgent environmental concerns have entered into the public consciousness over the past decade, the seeds of sustainability have been planted in society’s soil, the bridge-and-tunnel mentality has, to a certain extent, been abandoned. Mary Soderstrom, author of 2008’s The Walkable City, underscores the necessity of reducing dependence on automobiles by comparing the urban layouts of cities such as Paris, Toronto, Vancouver, and Singapore. In so doing, she articulates a plan meant to create a truly walkable city.

Soderstrom begins the book with an anthropological description of the evolutionary process that led humans to bipedalism, and the efficiency this change introduced. Although humans may share 98 per cent of our genetic code with chimpanzees, “no other animal has hind feet so elegantly differentiated from front feet, so clearly evolved to give us advantages in specific landscapes.”

The men and women who pushed handcarts across North America in a mid-nineteenth centry migration at a rate of 44 kilometres per day exemplified these advantages – they were able to travel twice as fast as the wagons chugging along at only 20 kilometers per day. In the grand scheme of things, carbon-emitting automobiles are a relatively new invention, a convenient plaything certainly not worth its impact on Mother Nature.

To steer humans back toward walking, Soderstrom elaborates on several measures meant to reduce vehicle dependency, implemented in cities worldwide. São Paulo, Brazil, for example, has outlawed the use of cars with odd- or even-numbered license plates on alternating days to reduce traffic and air pollution. Paris, meanwhile, has continually increased restrictions on traffic and parking since 2001, and has successfully reduced automobile traffic in the city by 15 per cent in only four years. By making other methods of transportation (metro, bus, bicycles, foot) as convenient as driving, Paris aims to reduce car traffic by 40 per cent come 2020.

Soderstrom is hopeful that the world’s population will realize that preventing environmental havoc requires more than the isolated efforts of a few cities. People consume, on average, 300 more calories per day than they did in 1970, leading to increases in average weight. An interesting study compared the average weight of a 5’7” person in Manhattan, a place where citizens don’t think twice about walking a few kilometers to work, with an average person from Geauga, a sprawling suburb in Ohio. The average Manhattanite weighed 6.3 pounds less than the Ohio resident.

These trends affect the global environment. Increased average weight within our population causes both a rise in heart disease as well as in usage of gas, as heavier passenger loads require that cars use more gas. Sucking up more gasoline, of course, causes greater carbon emissions, and higher incidences of asthma.

In reality, there are many factors preventing people from walking on a regular basis, such as the fear of attack in certain neighbourhoods, and congested sidewalks. But as Soderstrom details, “a constant stream of foot traffic lessens the opportunity for crime.” And since a greater number of pedestrians would reduce car traffic, most of the detrimental effects of an automobile-reliant society can be spared if individuals unearth the gumption to elicit change. Let’s face it: your driving habits are everybody’s business.

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