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Illustration of people walking

Let's Take a Stroll, You and I

From New York City to Atlanta to Oakland, our fellow bipeds are taking back the streets and rediscovering the joys of walking.

by Jane Holtz Kay

As a kid growing up in the fifties just outside Boston, I was a creature of asphalt. The sidewalk and stoop were my social hangouts, the hard-topped front and back courtyards of our Brookline apartment the place for play. "Watch out for cars!" was my grandparents' constant chorus, and their warning had some relevance in our semi-urban surrounds. Still, my childhood was "foot friendly," and walking a real option in that era. Weekdays, our Oldsmobile stayed put in the parking lot behind our apartment while I walked to school, accompanied by my father, whose walking genes I shared. We must have made an odd couple with our duck-waddling strides -- me to class, he heading off for the commuter rail downtown. At day's end, crossing guards watched over me and my classmates as we headed home.

Newcomers to the Eisenhower-era highways and mind-set, we needed some tutelage to survive the expanding car culture. Songs of Safety, a pictorial guide to staying out of automotive harm's way, first published in the thirties, instructed us on the dangers of traffic and "Talking to the Driver" -- the title of one of the songs.

In other respects, though, the car was still a pleasant pastime. The phrase pleasure drive had not yet become an oxymoron. "Come Away With Me Lucille in My Merry Oldsmobile" still lingered in our house, and joyride meant poky, relatively traffic-free Sunday trips here and there.

As we inched through adolescence, the streetcar and bus aided our foot-powered lives. Proximity and walkability let me meander from Sharaf's for "black cows" (root beer with one scoop of vanilla ice cream) to friends' houses. The trolley or bus that ran near our school shuttled me to piano lessons or took me crosswise to art class, as it would my younger sister. Simultaneously, it liberated my mother and her generation to enjoy a lifestyle far different from that of today's chauffeur/soccer mom, run ragged by her carbound, six-trip-per-child days.

On reflection, it is those childhood experiences of freedom, combined with my profession as an architecture, planning, and environmental writer -- not to mention my own car-free life and the car-light existence of my friends and colleagues -- that have led to my conviction that we are not born with a gene that tells us to put the pedal to the metal. At the same time, the congested reality of a nation in which cars outnumber licensed drivers has convinced me that what we really need to control our lethal, polluting chariots is a Slow Foot movement that would shift the balance from horsepower to footpower and transfer the billions of dollars in federal road subsidies to alternate forms of transportation. If we can have a Slow Food movement, why not a Slow Foot one?

The notion is a holistic one -- a thousand cuts at the dominant mode of mobility. Like the trend among Europeans (and even some Americans) to go back to their gastronomical roots and adopt organic, home-stewarded nourishment as an assertion of cultural identity, America's growing pedestrian movement means staying in touch with the lay of the land and slowing down in order to savor and save our built and natural environments.

Pedestrian advocacy is no fringe movement. A national poll taken in 2002 by the Surface Transportation Policy Project found that 55 percent of Americans want to walk more; 84 percent want streets designed for slower traffic; 59 percent favor greater investment in public transit; only a scant 25 percent want new roads. Like the advocates of Slow Food, the alliance of walkers and bikers, train riders and public-transit users finds it necessary to make something that was once regarded as natural into a cause. The Centers for Disease Control, in its own way, is also part of this effort, through its funding of the Safe Routes to School program, which encourages walking as an alternative to the sedentary, chauffeured -- and obese -- life of our sprawling suburbs.

Visits to my daughter in Paris provide a far happier picture of urban living. Strolling is a way of life in Paris because automobiles are pricey, parking is a disaster, gas is $5 a gallon, and pedestrian-friendly policies are in place, from wider sidewalks along the Champs-Elysées to a car-free summer route along the Seine. Even today, fewer than half of Parisian households own cars (and their drivers use them on only 13 percent of trips). With government support for small shops (many malls, for example, close on Sundays) and a brilliant public transportation system, the walking lifestyle flourishes.

In the United States, with a few exceptions, the opposite holds sway. "A Walk on the Wild Side" -- that was what a Washington Post Magazine writer recently called her adventures navigating 50 miles of commuter routes outside the capital, where she encountered "disappearing sidewalks, impassable crosswalks, unstoppable traffic, malevolent driving," and single "ghost shoes" scattered mysteriously along the highways.

For a listing of pedestrian groups around the country, as well as details of national and local events such as the annual Walk to Work Day, see

The Surface Transportation Policy Project describes itself as "a diverse, nationwide coalition working to ensure safer communities and smarter transportation choices." Its website,, provides links to organizations and statistical information at the state level.

The 13th International Symposium on Walking and Bicycling, better known as ProWalk/ProBike 2004, will be held in Victoria, British Columbia, from September 7 to 10. Find out more at, the website of the National Center for Bicycling and Walking.

The first Safe Routes to School program was created in 1997 by the New York City -- based Transportation Alternatives. To learn more about TA's work, see and

Speed humps and traffic circles are familiar to all of us, but for a guide to neckdowns, chokers, chicanes, pork chops, star diverters, and dozens of other clever techniques for slowing down traffic and making neighborhoods safer, check out

For other tips on environmentally conscious living from OnEarth magazine, visit the Living Green index page.

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Illustration: Craig Larotonda

OnEarth. Summer 2004
Copyright 2004 by the Natural Resources Defense Council