Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Nobody walks there

Image courtesy of the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center/Dan Burden

Once again tonight, I heard someone testify that sidewalks weren't needed in a certain location because, "Nobody walks there." In this case, the location was a light industrial area on the edge of town, so it's quite possible that the pedestrian traffic is quite light, but areas where nobody walks are very rare.

More often, drivers simply don't see the pedestrians. If you look closely, there is often a "desire line" in the grass or dirt next to the road. These "goat paths" are called desire lines, because they indicate a desire to walk and a need for sidewalks.

I have had many people come up to me after talks and tell me stories about places where "nobody walks," but they do, and it's unsafe because of the lack of sidewalks or other safe places to walk. One public health nurse in a smaller Wisconsin city told me that she works a second job at a big box store, and there are no sidewalks out there, because "nobody walks." Yet many of the employees DO walk, because when they get off work, they have to walk to the bus. She also sees young mothers, kids, and other shoppers walking to the store. Yet, "nobody walks there."

Image courtesy of the Pedestrian and  Bicycle Information Center/Libby Thomas

I have also been out to locations where "nobody walks," and pointed out the desire lines, the beaten path along the side of the road showing pedestrian traffic. I've asked planners and engineers, "How do you think that line got there?" They look at the evidence, and tell me they never noticed it before, and they swear they have never seen a pedestrian in the area. "Yes," I say, "Pedestrians are invisible. At least if you aren't looking for them."

Not only are pedestrians invisible, but stating that "nobody walks, so we don't need sidewalks," is possibly confusing cause and effect. It is certainly true that dense cities, where destinations are close by, and driving is a pain, have more pedestrian traffic than areas where big box stores and large office complexes rule. But failure to put in facilities for pedestrians (or bicyclists) might be the very reason that they are so rare.

Who really want to walk or bike when they have to put up with
fast, close traffic? Who wants to walk through mud and snow, and be splashed by car passing close by? The lack of sidewalks actually actively discourages walking. Lack of accommodations makes it uncomfortable to walk, and sends the message, "You are not welcome here."

Nobody walks. That's the problem. Sidewalks are the answer.