Americans Do Not Walk The Walk, And That's A Growing Problem

Apr 16, 2012
Originally published on April 16, 2012 5:57 am

"Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world," says writer Tom Vanderbilt. To find out why that is, Vanderbilt has been exploring how towns are built, how Americans view walking — and what might be done to get them moving around on their own two feet.

Talking with Morning Edition co-host Steve Inskeep about what is wrong with Americans' relationship with walking, Vanderbilt says, "The main thing is, we're just not doing enough of it."

"We've engineered walking out of our existence and everyday life," Vanderbilt says. "I even tried to examine the word 'pedestrian,' and it's always had sort of this negative connotation — that it was always better to be on a horse or something, if you could manage it."

In a series of stories for Slate about "The Crisis in American Walking," Vanderbilt writes about pedestrian life in America, from "sidewalk science" to possible ways to make the U.S. less car-centric. And he finds that what started as a push for convenience has become a difficult problem, as many parts of the country are now designed specifically for cars, not pedestrians.

And while Americans have cut down on walking, they've been putting on some pounds. A recent study found that about 35 percent of adult Americans are obese, as NPR's Shots blog reported in January. That equals "more than 78 million adults and more than 12 million children."

As one example of how people can take a technological advance and turn it into a reason to stop exercising, Vanderbilt points to the moving sidewalk.

"Go to an airport, and look at people on the moving walkway," he says. "I mean, the engineers who built that walkway — it's meant to speed you up, by walking on it. You're not meant to just hop on it and go on a slow, sort of moving ride."

Americans' reluctance to be pedestrians has not gone unnoticed — and there are efforts under way to get us walking more. The group America Walks, for instance, promotes walking in our daily lives with its "safe routes" program and other initiatives. And the Walk Score website rates neighborhoods based on how easy it is to walk around in them.

Those ideas also contribute to the rising trend of "mixed-use" real estate developments, many of which approximate the feel of an old village square by building cobblestones, sidewalks and lampposts into outdoor malls or apartment buildings.

Vanderbilt says of the movement, "I think the impulse is correct, and it does speak to this hunger that I think people do have, to walk."

But, he adds, while such developments offer a way to treat the symptoms of inactivity, they don't address the core problem — of too many people living too far away from the things they need.

"It's been argued by certain planners that people will drive to where they want to walk," he says. "But, can we walk to where we want to go? Does it always have to be a matter of jumping in a car?"

"Walking is really as natural as breathing," Vanderbilt says. "We're all born pedestrians."

Talking with Steve, Vanderbilt cites a thought on walking from philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who said, "I've walked myself into my best thoughts."

"I think we've all had that experience, of just taking a walk to clear your head. And it lowers your stress," Vanderbilt says — then adds, "hopefully, it lowers your stress. Some places we have to walk in the U.S., it doesn't lower your stress."

As he writes in the final installment of his series, "There is not a single dollar in the U.S. federal transportation budget dedicated strictly to walking."

Later in the same paragraph, Vanderbilt writes: "As a Federal Highway Administration study noted, 'In 2009, about 2.0 percent of federal-aid surface transportation funds were used for pedestrian and bicycle programs and projects. However, those two modes are estimated to account for almost 12 percent of all trips and represent more than 13 percent of all traffic fatalities.'"

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If you're listening to MORNING EDITION while in your car, we appreciate that. If you're listening in earbuds while walking, we also appreciate that. And the writer Tom Vanderbilt appreciates you. Vanderbilt wishes we would all walk more and that our cities were built so that we could walk more. In a recent series for Slate, Vanderbilt says our culture's decline in walking is a tragedy.

What is wrong, in your view, with the way we're walking?

TOM VANDERBILT: Well, I think the main thing is we're just not doing enough of it. I mean, number one, Americans now walk the least of any industrialized nation in the world. And this is something that has been true for a while, but you know, since my childhood, we've basically had this kind of loss of walking, whereas about 50 percent of people walked to school when I was going to school. That number is down to about 13 percent.

INSKEEP: Why on earth would that be?

VANDERBILT: Well, one thing is just that people began living further from schools. I mean this is a real number you can track, and you know, the further you are from school, obviously the harder it is to walk, despite what your grandfather told you about all those miles he walked through the snow. So...

INSKEEP: Uphill both ways.

VANDERBILT: Exactly. So I mean, that's problem number one. I mean another problem was the streets that were between the home and that school became not only more crowded with cars, but, you know, increasingly were built without things like sidewalks. So it became, you know, sort of dangerous for kids to walk - or the perception that it was dangerous. And once you go down that path, it becomes hard to reverse something like that.

INSKEEP: You illustrate your article with a rather powerful photograph of a grandmother taking her granddaughter to school, I believe.

VANDERBILT: Yeah, I mean she's basically being driven to the end of her driveway to get to the school bus. And the school bus brings up something, you know, important here, which is we're kind of undergoing a crisis in America with funding.

For example, a lot of school bus routes are being cut, and what you find is kids living about a mile or two from school no longer have this option of a school bus. Yet it's become unfeasible for them to walk because they're living in places without sidewalks, without adequate crossing facilities.

INSKEEP: Now, we're talking about children here, but of course the same patterns apply, if even more so, to adults.

VANDERBILT: That's right. And you know, I think we've engineered walking out of our existence in everyday life. Go to an airport and look at people on the moving walkway. I mean it's meant to speed you up by walking on it. You're not meant to just sort of hop on it and go on a slow sort of moving ride.

I think humans like to - as one phrase put it in an engineering study, you know, minimize dissatisfaction. So you know, if we can sort of cut this walking out a little bit, it makes us feel better, but in the long run, it actually doesn't make us feel better.

INSKEEP: You seem to think that entirely aside from the health benefits or whatever else, that something really fundamental is being lost here in human life.

VANDERBILT: I think so. I mean it's almost just a way of relating to the Earth. I mean, walking is really as natural as breathing. It's - we're all born pedestrians, and we stay pedestrians. We don't walk as much as we should, but philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, you know, I have walked myself into my best thoughts.

I think we've all had that experience of just taking a walk to clear your head and it lowers your stress - hopefully it lowers your stress. Some places we have to walk in the U.S., you know, it doesn't lower your stress.

But it kind of gets back to, for example, what Michael Pollan says about food. You know, it's like going back to what your grandmother knew to just be good food: simple, unprocessed, local, natural. You know, what did your grandmother know about walking? She probably did a lot more of it than you do.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about one other thing. So-called mixed-use development has got to be one of the trendiest things in building cities now. And even you can go into very distant suburbs and find people who are doing new developments where they will try to put stores and housing and offices all in the same development so that at least in theory someone could walk everywhere they needed to if they lived there or lived nearby.

VANDERBILT: You know, I think the impulse is correct. I mean, and it does speak to this hunger, I think, that people do have to walk. I mean the building of these so-called lifestyle centers, which are essentially shopping malls, but in places from Los Angeles to, you know, just about every city nowadays, where you sort of drive to this parking garage and then you sort of get out and then enter this idealized small-town sort of vision and you walk around and there's cobblestones and iron lampposts.

And it's been argued by certain planners that, you know, people will drive to where they want to walk. That's the kind of state we're at in America. But can we walk to where we want to go? Does it always have to be a matter of jumping in the car?

So any development that can sort of make walking just more pleasurable, more possible, I think is welcome. I think a lot of those things are sort of, you know, Band-Aid fixes that, again, speak to this cultural hunger, but don't really get at the ultimate problems.

INSKEEP: Tom Vanderbilt, thanks very much.

VANDERBILT: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Vanderbilt's series for is called "America's Pedestrian Problem." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.