After our journey to the train station in Cambridge, we took our time getting to our next place out by Heathrow, and got a good glimpse at how traffic-oriented the UK can be along the Great South West Road near our hotel. We spent most of our time that day on trains and the tube, but had enough time for an excellent time in Southwark (pronounced “Sark” as best I could tell). After yet another tube ride back out to Heathrow, a final night’s sleep before the flight home.
The flight back was longer than the flight there, but mercifully during the day. On the clock, it took two hours. There was no obligation to sleep during this flight, so I gamely busied myself with some reading, a movie, and then another movie.
By the time I got through customs, it was 3 in the afternoon. Time to find my car for the journey home. Out of the parking lot, onto the access road, onto the 6 lane highway, exit onto the interstate, then exit off it, wait at the light, wait at another light, turn left, and park. And I’m home
19 miles. 10 times as far to get from transportation to home as from home to transportation the day before.
So why couldn’t I walk this?
That’s not an overly ludicrous question, though I’ve never walked 19 miles in one day. I did come very close in London. I apologize to our friends we met with at St. Paul’s Cathedral when the reality of this hit my calves. 19 miles is the distance up Broadway from Battery to Inwood Parks in Manhattan, so its not an inconceivable distance for walking.
The main obstacle was of course the distance, but the landscape I would be walking in was pretty inhospitable as well. In Cambridge, some of the streets had been in place for centuries before carriage technology was mature. Queen Elizabeth, the daughter of the dude who completed Kings Chapel, complained she could not sit for days after a long ride in the finest carriage in all of England*. These places would naturally be loaded with lots of things to see at a walking pace. Not so in Fairfax County.
The places in Fairfax County around Dulles are all engineered to one end: to handle the peak load of traffic in something under an hour of throughput. The capacity of a traffic lane is 2,000 vehicles per hour, so If you have 10,000 vehicles coming through at peak, you’d better have 5 lanes to offer them. And 5 more in the opposite direction for their return trips, of course.
Walking is barely an afterthought here. It is only begrudgingly required by law, with periodic privilege given to cross the expanse of asphalt. God help you if the intersection contains right turn lanes. Blocks are built nice and huge, because every intersection is a delay and chance of collision. There are actually 5 parallel roads** to get from the airport to my home. None of them are a lot of fun to walk on.
Some of them have shared-use paths: 10 foot wide asphalts to accommodate bikers and walkers alike. I do see bikers and joggers on these roads, but they aren’t doing it for the errands. The shared use paths are in the clear zone, a speed-rated area next to every road engineered or upgraded since 1965 to eliminate all ‘fixed hazardous objects” from the side of the road. High speed roads get much wider clear zones, in the thought that a car traveling 80 feet per second is going to travel a lot further off the road if anything goes wrong. If any walkers happen to be on the shared use path at that time, it was nice knowing them.
Dulles, like any American airport, is made to be driven to. A look at the aerial photo of Dulles shows about as much area devoted to Parking as to runways. That is, in real estate terms, the function of an airport is as much about parking as it is about flying.
The other reason I couldn’t walk home from the airport is that my home was 19 miles from it. I know I started with that stat, but the low personal cost of driving means that we take long distances lightly and become annoyed when we have to move at anything like a walking pace. I’m writing this from a cafe 1 yours walk from my home. I didn’t walk here.
The several reasons I couldn’t walk home from Dulles seem immutable, but they can change. If we change the assumptions that we use to build with. Building never was simple, we just built for one mode of transportation for the last century. We can have choice, if we choose it.
* The Ways of the World – Maxwell G. Lay : The best history I’ve read of the history of transportation modes and their technological dependencies.
** and one my wife insists is better, but involves going East to go West