Everyone who travels has been to America’s most walkable city, New York. You walk so much there that it’s no wonder anyone can grab a daily slice at the local pizzeria and still be Audrey Hepburn skinny.
But it turns out that I’ve also been, by chance, to what the urban planning group Walk Score calls our least walkable city: Fayetteville, North Carolina, which I visited for D’s wedding. ‘a friend. And I remember driving a lot. For every five miles of roadway, it turns out there’s only one mile of sidewalk in Fayetteville.
Walk Score rankings are based on how easily residents can walk to and from home, work, school, businesses, restaurants and entertainment. As we try to move beyond the car, we can all agree that city planners working to make walking easier is a good thing, right? That’s not too fascist for you liberals, or too comical for you conservatives, is it? Hoping not.
But everything has its unintended side effects – and its limitations. Trees, as economists keep reminding us, do not grow to the sky. The disadvantages of walking are in line with everything associated with the otherwise laudable aspects of New Urbanism: gentrification.
Plus, a certain twee-ness. I may like the vibe of an old fashioned village, but I sure don’t want to live on Main Street, USA at Disneyland.
In an article about how Barcelona — home to arguably the world’s largest pedestrian street, Las Ramblas — is trying to make the city’s more diverse neighborhoods more walkable, too, Vox noted that when American cities try to become more walkable, the result may be “isolated luxuries” rather than “real” neighborhoods.
It can certainly happen in Europe too. In Spain last month, we liked that the streets of central Toledo are essentially car-free – only local residents, taxi drivers and cops are allowed to drive there. The streets are so narrow that drivers have to retract their mirrors just to pass without scratches. Toledo has been primarily a tourist town for hundreds of years – if it sounds a bit “fake”, it has been that way for a long time. It’s too much to expect commercial activity to include very many corner hardware and grocery stores as locals make their business of visitors. But it undeniably creates what my architect wife notes as a downtown “children’s zoo”. Every other storefront appears to be either a purveyor of artisanal ice cream or, madly, a seller of ceremonial long swords that symbolize the town’s warlike past. (We never saw a single sword sold – how would you get it on the train, let alone on the plane? – but in the 100-degree heat, the ice cream was selling like… hot cakes.)
How to prevent the mini-zoo effect? While we yearn for the pedestrian joys of a nocturnal stroll where people-watching is excellent, how do we keep it real?
This is the dilemma faced by planners and the elected officials they work for. We know that exciting changes to our downtowns can be announced quite quickly. Watch how, at the height of the pandemic, cities allowed restaurants to move sidewalk seating and commandeer parking spaces so customers could dine safely. Pedestrian streets don’t need to be open 24/7 – traders want trucks to have access to early morning deliveries, for example. Bollards can be raised and they can be lowered. The longest pedestrian street in Europe, 1.25 km from Rue Sainte-Catherine in Bordeaux, is large enough to be both upscale and low-end. What’s clear is that the dangers of twee don’t mean we should give up trying to create great places where we can move outside of our cars.
Larry Wilson is a member of the editorial board of the Southern California News Group. [email protected]