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Thursday, May 26, 2011 12:32 am

Taking to the streets

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A people’s willingness to walk determines the shape of their towns – and their towns have a lot to do in determining the shape of the people who live in them. University of Tennessee researchers strapped pedometers on 1,136 American adults of various ages living in different kinds of places and compared the results to similar groups in other countries. They found that the average number of steps taken per day by adults in western Australia, Switzerland and Japan ranged from 9,695 to 7,168. The Americans walked only 5,117 steps.

 Taking a couple of steps to the filing cabinet and back to the desk is not walking. However, it is exercise, and the lack of it shows in our waistlines. Over the past decade obesity rates in Australia, Japan and Switzerland ranged from 3 to 16 percent; in the U.S. the rate was 34 percent.

 Americans are not innately lazier than their cousins abroad. The differences in activity levels have roots in our national culture certainly – everything does – but much of the variation owes to the towns we live in. And towns in most of the rest of the industrialized West are very different from ours.

Most Americans live in small towns or their metropolitan equivalents, hinterland suburbs or those newer parts of small cities such as Springfield built to suburban designs. In such places hardly anyone walks. Houses are segregated from shops and surrounded by multilane roadways, making errand walking tediously lengthy and unpleasant to boot.

The Tennessee finding was seized on as – and for all I know was undertaken to provide – evidence that Americans need to walk more for their health. Lots of luck trying to change Americans’ health habits by shaming them with the example of wiry Aussies from Perth. There is more promise in changing American towns so that even Americans will walk more.

Perceptions of walking distance (and thus people’s willingness to walk) are surpisingly subjective. Planners and architects assume that people will willingly walk a maximum of only 300 to 600 feet from a parking ramp to a store, but workers will walk between 1,200 and 1,500 feet from the car to the office. Fun-seekers tolerate walks as far as 2,000 feet – that’s about one and a half laps around a quarter-mile athletic track – from parking to a theme park, stadium or arena.

In short, people will walk if the reward awaiting them at the destination matches or exceeds the cost in time and effort. Perceived distance also varies according to how many things there are to divert one along the way. That’s why shoppers who will complain about having to park 20 steps from the door instead of 10 will happily walk a thousand yards in a mall that takes them past lots of interesting shops.

Density of uses as well as variety of uses (to use the planning jargon) will stimulate walking too. If on one jaunt you can return a library book, pick up a newspaper, get some cash out of an ATM, drop off the dry cleaning, and have a cup of coffee, that’s a nice return on the investment of a few steps. I know, because I did just that most days for nearly 20 years in the 1970s and ’80s. I then lived in or on the fringes of downtown Springfield, during which time I neither owned nor needed a car for daily life. Downtown by then had already ceased to be the city’s retailing and service center, but even so there were, within a 10-minute walk of my apartment, banks, libraries, the post office, newsstands, drug stores, movie houses, restaurants and buses to take to any other part of town I needed to visit.

I didn’t choose to walk to save the earth by not burning fossils fuels, but to save my budget by not burning money. Nor did I walk for my health, any more than my many carless neighbors did, or for that matter the Japanese and Swiss and Aussies the Tennessee researchers described. Yet I never felt better, and never spent a day in – or a dollar on – a gym. Walking along a densely used street in the city is a great stress reliever. And an environment that introduces the stroller to something new and different enough to hold her attention every few steps offers stimulation of a gentle sort that is thought to be a key to a good night’s sleep.

Designing a city so it offers more of these kinds of experiences to people who can’t afford a car or choose not to use one is a good thing for them and for their city. Not that I expect many people to take my word for it, but the pedestrian lifestyle is not a  

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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