Friday, September 05, 2008

This is the era of "The Walker"

Chris and I are walkers. We walk evenings during the week and mornings on weekends. Coco's on the end of the leash held firmly in my hand in case she sees a rabbit. Coco bolts after rabbits and squirrels, her two mortal enemies. We're still trying to leash-train her, but she's still technically a puppy and it's a task.

We walk through our neighborhood and down to the Cheyenne Greenway. Recent mayors and the city council pushed to expand this urban amenity. Greenway expansion was on the May ballot and it passed with flying colors, even though a $55 million rec center was defeated. Judging by that support, and the number of walkers, cyclists and runners who use it, the Greenway is a hit. It's concrete, a step up from the asphalt paths you usually find on greenways.

So we walk. Chris walks to keep in shape and moderate her diabetes. I walk to keep in a semblance of shape and I love being outside. Walking spurs my imagination although that's mostly when I walk alone. Chris and I talk during our walks but not all the time. When I walk alone, the activity stimulates the creative center of the brain. Sometimes I'm inspired to write another story. Other times I'm able to work out the kinks in something I'm in the process of writing.

Chris and I walk the mountains. Sometimes that's called hiking but more and more it seems like strolling. We're not as intent as we used to be about logging miles. My sensibilities tell me to slow down and enjoy the view. My knees also send signals to slow down.

I also walk downtown, where I work. It's a good place to walk. Long blocks, wide sidewalks, and very little traffic most of the time. But Cheyenne is primarily a driving town, so walkers have to be wary of street crossings. Motorists can be courteous, but often they (we?) are clueless. A decade ago, I wrote an online story on "New Urbanism" design and its philosophy of livable, walkable neighborhoods. As I drove around town, I noticed how few walkers there were, especially in the Dell Range corridor with all its big box stores. On ten trips down Dell Range, I saw only one pedestrian, and he looked hopelessly lost.

The article received a few responses. One was negative, taking me to task for trying to shove East Coast ideas down the throats of Wyomingites. New Urbanism, the writer declared, was just a plot to take away a citizen's trucks and tell him/her what kind of house to build -- and where.

Wyomingites don't like to be told what to do by experts, especially if they're from "The East Coast" or California. But many times these outside experts can see things more clearly than those who've lived in a place for a long time.

Dan Burden of Walkable Communities visited Cheyenne this week "to see which neighborhoods are the most pedestrian-friendly," according to the 9/4 Cheyenne Tribune-Eagle.

He found out that Cheyenne was not particularly pedestrian-friendly. No surprise there. He was startled that the roads and streets were so wide (39- to 52-feet) and the sidewalks were so narrow. We could have told him that. Western streets are really wide compared to their cousins elsewhere. Is this due to the Mormon pioneer precept that dictated streets should be wide enough to turn around an ox cart? Very few ox carts left, even in Provo and Salt Lake City. But take a look at streets in Cheyenne and Fort Collins. Those are some wide streets. At least Fort Collins has bike lanes on most streets. We're still working on that. Yellowstone Ave. that flanks my neighborhood has bike lanes. Dell Range on the other flank does not.

Burden's a city planner that contends that his peers have the wrong priorities. "Design standards should accommodate people first and vehicles second, not the other way around."

Sidewalks, he said, should be six feet across to let two people walk side by side. The most narrow sidewalks were three-and-one-half feet in Pointe Frontier. The sidewalks around the public library downtown were only four feet wide. They are too narrow to accommodate the gaggles of St. Mary's School students which soon will be trooping from their new school to the library.

Face it: we're living in a new century in which fuel prices will climb steadily and we'll all have to turn to alternative transportation. That could be smaller cars on narrower roads, hybrid cars, bikes and walking. Let's add width to sidewalks by taking it from roadways. We've already done that in Cheyenne on Vandehei. Yes, I know that most Cheyennites complained about the winding narrow street with bike lanes on the other side of concrete and brick dividers. But it may be tactics like this that gets us out of our Saudi-powered vehicles and onto our legs where bipeds belong.

At the end of the article, the reporter talked to Carol Matteson Pascal, who was participating in the walkability audit. She named her favorite walking cities in the U.S.: Santa Fe, Seattle and San Francisco. I haven't walked around Seattle since I was a kid lost at the Seattle World's Fair. But Santa Fe and San Francisco I've walked during the past ten years and they are high on the walkability scale. So are Portland and Denver. Salt Lake City's not bad. It's great to walk in Sheridan and Buffalo, Wyoming. Jackson's great for walkers, as long as you don't stop to shop -- could spend all your allowance in five minutes. Missoula's a walking town. That's true of many university towns. Laramie, for one, as long as you don't need to get to the Super Wal-Mart way out on Grand Avenue.

Although Wyomingites rarely venture to the dreaded East Coast, it boasts some ultra-walkable places such as Washington, D.C. (yes, inside The Beltway!), Boston, St. Augustine (although you have to drive to get to the beach), and the Baltimore Harborfront.

Which are the worst? So many choices. Houston, L.A., Atlanta, Orlando. Most modern sprawling U.S. cities, especially in the West and South. Phoenix? Some cool places downtown, such as Roosevelt Row and the adjacent historic district. There will be a light rail system soon. But Phoenix remains a car city. Tucson, too. Great bus system, though.

What are your favorite walkable towns and cities? Least favorite?

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