Tom Vanderbilt in “Slate”: “How America can start walking again”

I’ve already posted a few Savannah-centric comments about as well as links to Traffic author Tom Vanderbilt’s 4-part series in Slate about walking in America. My posts are here, here, and here.

Why do Americans walk less than most other people around the world? And what can we do about it?

The final article in the series, Learning to Walk; How America can start walking again, begins with a story from Georgia (again) about mother Raquel Nelson, who was convicted of vehicular homicide even though she wasn’t driving — or even inside a car. She was walking her 3 children across a busy divided road from a bus stop. They didn’t make it across and her 4-year old son was killed.

Vanderbilt on that much-publicized incident:

The bus stop from which she’d alighted was directly across from the apartment complex that represented, in essence, its user base. And yet, transit users like Nelson were asked to walk one-third of a mile to the nearest traffic signal, on a narrow sidewalk abutting a street on which cars regularly drive 60 mph; to wait to cross at the intersection; and then to return another third of a mile. (To see for yourself just how daunting this is, head north from the apartment entrance on Google Street View.) At the time of the accident, Nelson and her family had been crossing directly at the bus stop, where there is no crosswalk. For this, Georgia prosecutors charged her with second-degree vehicular homicide. The driver, who was initially charged with “hit and run, first degree homicide by vehicle and cruelty to children,” later had his charges dropped to hit and run.

Vanderbilt goes deep into the failures of street design and transit access. He correctly notes that it’s simply not human behavior to walk far out of one’s way if there’s a shorter route. We once had a spate of pedestrian accidents here in Savannah on West Bay Street over the viaduct — those were directly related to the fact there were so no legal crossings in the areas where pedestrians needed them. We had a tragic death on Bay Street at Jefferson Street a number of years ago that prompted the city to put in a crosswalk, but that intersection had for many years been a key one for pedestrians on Savannah’s nightlife scene. Why did it take a death to make such a sensible decision? Why do we continue to ignore the blatant lawbreaking of drivers crossing Bull Street in the Historic District who do not yield to pedestrians already in the crosswalk?

Vanderbilt gives here a great history of sidewalks generally — and points out that overly long blocks and high-speed traffic have proven huge barriers to walking. Comparisons:

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.

He finishes with a great discussion of Complete Streets and how design can change behavior. This is a long series by internet reading standards these days, but well worth the time for those who are invested in any of these issues — which should include just about everyone in Savannah.