In the US, streets often times don’t have sidewalks. Doesn’t that contribute to a lack of fitness and increases in obesity?
The Walk Is Mine On Blue Bayou
Back when I lived in the US for the first time, in a small town in Louisiana to be precise, one thing stood out for me: many streets didn’t have sidewalks.
To a German that is rather peculiar, as we have a tendency to build sidewalks whenever we build a street. Which means we end up with quite a few streets that feature sidewalks just about nobody ever walks on. That in turn probably says a lot about the German tendency to perfectionism.
(We, by the way, also can’t build streets without lining them with trees, but the Germans and their relationship to their forests is a different topic.)
The Suspicious Pedestrian
But no matter, with that social conditioning it was natural for me that short distances are to be done by foot. As the local Wal-Mart was practically around the corner and nearly the town’s only shopping place, I also had, in my perception, a perfect pedestrian destination.
Up to that point I had been taken everywhere by car, making my first attempt at walking there the act of revelation: despite being in what was a through-and-through residential area, there were no sidewalks. Going anywhere by foot meant you had to walk on the street. That, however, didn’t perturb me too much. I reasoned the city authorities simply were practical and considered these streets so quiet that you could walk on them without running the risk of getting a 4×4 into your neck (we are in Louisiana, after all).
Unfortunately the impression didn’t last. When I walked on, the few passing cars actually slowed down, their drivers giving me side glances, and people on porches watched until I left their line of vision. It became clear that I was doing something regarded unusual. The lack of sidewalks was not due to practical consideration.
This was reinforced when I finally got to the highway that neatly dissected the town in two parts. It was the last obstacle between me and the Wal-Mart. But there were no pedestrian lights and crossing this broad expand of asphalt gave me a very good real life idea of that ancient computer game Frogger. It seemed nobody ever figured that anyone could attempt crossing it by foot.
Still, Louisiana sometimes is a bit unique compared to the rest of the US and I wasn’t going to judge a whole country by what I had experienced – it could be different elsewhere. But when some years later I went on to Michigan, its smaller and even medium-sized municipalities greeted me with the sight still familiar from the South: newer streets didn’t feature sidewalks and on the older that had them, they often were dilapidated enough to render them unusable.
Of course, in many larger cities, like Washington DC, Dallas or New York City, sidewalks in good repair are everywhere. And when three years ago I visited a comparatively small town and beach resort on the east coast, I couldn’t believe my eyes: the vast majority of streets provided pedestrians with a neatly kept sidewalk and using them was just about as natural as it is to people here.
The Act Of Walking
I already said previously that the simple act of walking is fitness. Fitness without really being fitness, because you can walk with the clear goal of getting somewhere, instead of moving just for the sake of moving. It is practical and burns quite a number of calories. Certainly fewer than jogging, but many, many more than taking the car.
That makes me wonder: why don’t US city planners emphasize it more? Why is walking in some places so frowned upon? Are these regional differences?