This July Fourth almost didn’t happen.

It has been a rainy spring and summer, the rainiest I can remember. I recall most July 4th weekends as brutally hot and sunny. The settling dark before the fireworks was usually a relief from the heat of the day. But not this 4th. This day started in a pleasant shower, overcast, then an afternoon downpour. It was drizzling by sundown. Then I heard a boom.

Like a seven year old, I got all excited about seeing the big show and insisted my wife pull herself away from her work before we missed the show. So we walked a block towards the nearby high school and waited another 30 minutes for the fireworks.

July 4th Fireworks are always delicious with anticipation, but especially on a day that had seen torrential rains and overcast skies. When they finally started we thrilled like kids a quarter to the spectacle and booms, When it was finally over, we got up and walked back home. Past all the parked cars. The only time that street fills up with parked cars is on July 4th, when people drive from a mile or two away to visit the events on the highway and the high school near our house. We can just walk there.

The first traffic jams I knew growing up were after July 4th celebrations in Atlanta. All my dad could do was creep slowly behind the cars in front of us, until the knot broke up and frayed to its thousands of destinations. In 2004, I got to see the DC fireworks from the Iwo Jima Memorial. I had never seen transit so packed as the metro for those five stops to home. Four feet away from us, somebody’s child was crying in a closet of crotches. We got home on time, but the journey was arduous.

What if we could have walked to the fireworks, like we did this 4th? A privileged few, who lived right there, could. But they paid a price in rents for spectacular views and easy access to services. If you want to serve July 4th crowds in their numbers, you would need some sort of high capacity transportation. High capacity either means crowding, delay, or both. With traffic, it also requires immense space for parking. If only more crowds could walk longer distances to these sorts of events.

The problem with that in much of America is that we are not set up to make walking safe or interesting. Throughout America, there are thousands of towns that were built and thriving when a horse was expensive and messy, and the only long distance freight or travel was by rail. These downtowns consist of 2-4 blocks around the freight depot, and the housing blocks nearby don’t extend more than a mile from this. In the mid-west these towns were pre-platted and pre-sold, occupying an urban square mile in the middle of endless farmsteads. You can still see their grids throughout the prairie states.

There are larger cities, like Philadelphia, Denver or DC that grew enormous in the same era. Their walkability is more of a shifting frame, with millions of overlapping walk-sheds and routes. This is a scale model of the way we navigate the American drive-shed today. Traffic serves millions of overlapping routes to millions of destination. I could not tell you what it is like a block off of my commute, but I could almost count how many hills and turns my particular route has. I perceive my driving landscape at 45 MPH, I would perceive a walking one at 3 MPH. There is no reason the walking one needs to offer less. In fact, it requires it if I am going to use it.

I regret that we’ve built for nothing but traffic for the last 80 years. However, walking remains a common mode of travel. More common than you might think, with all of our icons around driving and the “American Love Affair with the Car”. We take 20% of our work trips by walking. For trips under a mile, we are as likely to walk as we are to drive. This is from a people comically assumed to drive to their mailboxes. Walking already has a place in American life, but it can have more, at much lower cost, if we enable it.

2010Mode to work

Block groups with over 10% mode share in journey to work, 2010 ACS.  Over 50% mode share shown in blue.

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