Thursday, May 10, 2007

How far will you go to improve the city, yourself?

A rash of pedestrian fatalities should heighten the need for re balancing our transportation infrastructure - the physical space required for safe and enjoyable walking routes, for example – but without a forceful response from city hall, the fatalities instead reinforce a negative notion that walking is somehow not a safe option unless isolated on a treadmill.

It does seem that in today's adult world walking has become a specialized act more associated with pure exercise than an option for getting places. A glance at the local school reveals empty bike racks (if there are racks at all), and a generation who rarely walk or cycle to classes when a parent can drive them. Whatever the supposed advantages of a drive-through culture, healthy lifestyles is not one of them.

For successive generations utilitarian walking is fading from consciousness. Between 1969 and 2001 the percentage of students who would walk or cycle to school has dropped almost by 2/3 .

The move from active modes (cycling and walking) to driving have their impact. In her research “KidsWalk: Then and Now,” Christina Kober reports on some alarming trends: in a short 15 year span (1980 to 1995) childhood asthma rates risen from 45.1 per 1,000 to 82 per 1,000, while childhood obesity rates have quadrupled since 1963.

And for parents who drive their kids to school for “safety” reasons, take note: Kober's research reveals that half the kids hit by near schools are by cars driven by parents of students.

School Boards are not helping, the research suggests, as small neighbourhood schools are replaced by larger but more remote schools, increasing children's travel distance. This sort of decision is only thinkable in an automobile-saturated culture.

As the late cultural critic Ivan Illich noted “vehicles had created more distances than they helped to bridge; more time was used by the entire society for the sake of traffic than was 'saved'.”