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I had the privilege of spending some quantity time in one of America’s oldest communities this week.  Out on the streets and roads of this town, I noticed that there were a lot more cars on the roads than people on the sidewalks.  The time I was there I must have seen hundreds of cars, a couple dozen walkers, and less than a dozen bikers. I thought this peculiar.  This was one of the oldest towns in America.  Perhaps I was in its newer, bypass highway corridor, when walkers were not really invited.

So I made a note to go check out http://walkscore.com and http://maps.google.com last night to see if more walkable places had more walkers or more cars in traffic.

Even in neighborhoods like Tribeca, the Tenderloin and South Boston, all well over 150 years old, there were just about as many cars as there were people on the streets.  Granted, many of the cars were parked, but they still took up about 25 times the amount of space as the people walking on the street.  Perhaps streetviews are only taken in midday or on weekends, when congestion is the lowest and the street view is the best.

Walkers simply got the message long ago.

Removing all the trees form the sidewalks, separating all the businesses from the street by yet more parking, dipping the sidewalk with every curb cut, and spacing everything out to enable drivers at cars to see a new thing every 2 seconds, every 100 feet, rather than a walker every 9 feet sent the message that things are not at the walking scale in America.  Things are built for traffic, not walking.

But to be fair, much of the traffic was just passing through.  It was rush hour when I was there; when 20% of the trips get done in 10% of the clock, and all the congestion happens.  Rush hour sets the dimensions of the roads as they are built, not as they are needed the other 22 hours of the day.  Walkers can only comfortably walk within a mile or two.  Most walk trips are even shorter.   Cars can drive in comfort much longer.  Driving is really just sitting in a chair, facing forward, worrying about the money that went into the car and death by collision.  It is hardly driving at all.  We just call it that in the same way we dial our phones.

If the roads are designed for peak traffic, everything else is designed for minimum traffic.  Minimum traffic is when car is moving fastest.  The sign heights, the setback for buildings, and the minimum lot sizes are set by the speed limit plus 10: the design speed.  Most of the day, that is how fast people will be traveling on any road.  Especially every road is wide enough to handle rush hour traffic.

Walkers got the message that the treeless sidewalks and wide open spaces between anything worth seeing was designed for  traffic.  They decided the cost of buying a car was less than the embarrassment of being out in these places.  Most importantly, walkers see that they are a disadvantaged minority in most of America.  We don’t build for them except in buildings, surrounded by parking.  Even in the old places built before traffic.

We have built for traffic for almost a century now.  The speed and mass of the vehicles demanded that we plan and build for them and them alone from the start.  The expense of the vehicles demanded that people who bought them would be a fool not to drive them as much as possible.  I’m interested to know if there is a third way of building, where walkers and bikers are given their due along with traffic.

Or despite traffic.

Or better than traffic.