Healthy Cities are for Walkers; Walkers for Healthy Cities

John Kassel

Cambridge, MA, in snow. From this photo, I ask: Who ranks? Cars or walkers?

This is a scene in Cambridge, MA, last Friday morning during the nor’easter that passed through late last week. From this photo I ask you: Who ranks in Cambridge, drivers or pedestrians?

In fairness to the hardworking snowplow drivers, municipal employees and property owners – this was in the middle of a storm, we’re all just trying to do the best we can, access for emergency vehicles is essential, and budgets are tight so we can’t do everything.  I understand that and have great respect for our public servants. This isn’t about their job performance.

It’s about our priorities. Who ranks? Cars rank. The sidewalks never get plowed by our elected, tax-supported city government. Clearly it’s not our priority to make it easy to walk. Even though walking is better for our bodies and our planet, and in cities when coupled with public transit it’s the easiest, cheapest, healthiest and overall best way to get around.

Ironically, a few blocks from the scene above, a conference on Public Spaces at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was treating topics such as “Public Space, Democracy and Equality:  For the People, By the People, of the People?”  The attendees were a crowd that understands the importance of public space to public health and the environment – and thriving cities – if there ever was one.  However, emerging on the snowy sidewalk a group of them, lamenting the snow and stepping in ankle-deep slush, scoffed at the idea that the city might actually clear the sidewalks of snow so that people can walk on this vital public space.

Which goes to show how deeply engrained our cars-over-walkers priority scheme really is.

This will change. The world is urbanizing. Young people in the US are buying cars at a much lower rate than their parents’ generation, and many are not even getting drivers’ licenses. They are much more willing to use public transit, and share a car if/when they need one. They walk. And they will replace us, as a matter of mathematical inevitability.

So our priorities have to change. And the sooner the better – because we cannot afford to keep driving everywhere, and maintaining (let alone expanding) a transportation system that prioritizes cars.

This is not a purist view. Cars are a good and necessary thing. We all use them at times, and will continue to need to, so we’re not about to get rid of them altogether. Our collective fleet needs to go electric, in a big way, for similar reasons.  And that’s going to happen too – but that’s another subject.

This is about our priorities. Decreased use of cars in urban areas (large, medium and small), and increased use of walking, biking and transit, is both good for us and the way of the future in any event.

The sooner we align our public spending with that set of priorities the healthier, wealthier and wiser we will be.

 

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