National Walk to Work Day turns 19 this Friday. Is it time to kick it out of the house? Started in 2004 by the federal government and the American Podiatric Medical Association — as if only our feet benefit from walking — the holiday has always been strangely tone deaf about the daily reality of most American commuters.
More than three quarters of us get to work by car. Most of us do this not because we want to, but because we have no good alternative. Seventy-five years of sprawl, highway building, and transit disinvestment have created a national landscape that makes car ownership an obligation for almost everyone. The automobile is no longer an instrument of freedom, but rather a bulky, expensive, and dangerous prosthetic device, a prerequisite to viable citizenship.
Some holiday messaging reflects this reality. Here’s the blog of Just Energy, an electrical and natural gas provider across the U.S. and Canada: “If you drive, see if there is a place you can park 15 minutes from your office to cut down on your drive time and get your feet on the street.”
Never mind that this seems like a silly alternative to hitting the gym, is it really a good idea for our health? The death rate of people walking on American streets has risen 82% since 2009, thanks mostly to the primacy of the SUV and the unrelentingly high-speed design standards of our road engineers. Most of our communities now feel like anti-pedestrian zones. And many poor Americans are now living without cars in places that were built to make walking perilous at best. In fact, the typical feel-good news story these days is about people not walking to work: the struggling minimum-wage worker stranded in suburbia whose colleagues chip in and buy them a car. Problem solved!
National Walk to Work Day would have made a lot of sense 50 years ago. Then, almost half of American children walked or biked to school — the number now is 11% — as our communities had not yet been thoroughly reorganized around the presumption of universal automotive dependence. My father, an orthodontist in Belmont, Massachusetts, walked to work every day, and it seemed pretty normal. I would pass his office on my walk to school.
What sounds nostalgically like a Pepperidge Farm commercial here in the U.S. is contemporary practice in other places. In Copenhagen, almost half of all trips to work or school are made on foot or by bike. Similarly, 50% of trips in Amsterdam are by bike.
It wasn’t always this way. Half a century ago, European and American cities weren’t all that different. Both were drowning in automobiles, with the death rates to prove it. In the Netherlands, 500 children were killed in traffic in 1971. This led to a national “Stop de Kindermoord” (child murder) movement, and a scientific rethinking of Dutch road design. By 2014, this effort had reduced the number of child traffic deaths to nine.
Meanwhile in the U.S., we doubled down on our “love affair with the automobile” — incidentally, a phrase coined by marketers at DuPont tire — and now only 1 in 37 of us walk to work on a regular basis.
So maybe it’s time that we stopped pretending that a walk to work could be something normal. Instead, we could dedicate April 7 to a cause that is achievable. Rather than asking Americans to traverse preposterous distances at great threat to life and limb, we could instead celebrate some of the most promising trends underway to make our cities more walkable and less car-dependent.
Three trends come immediately to mind: state-level mandates to put affordable housing on transit; municipal efforts to cut parking requirements; and citizen-led campaigns to kill new highways. Here’s a bit more on each:
Putting Housing on Transit: Most people are now aware that we face an affordable housing crisis in America. Progressive cities like Minneapolis and Portland are finally repealing the discriminatory single-family zoning laws that keep housing expensive, and passing Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinances that allow homeowners to build granny flats in their backyards. But, importantly, housing advocates are also reminding us that affordable housing is not so affordable if it makes you buy a car. As a result, new state laws are mandating that more housing be built in places with frequent transit service. In Massachusetts, 175 communities with good transit access are now required to increase allowed densities near rail, bus, or ferry service.
Parking Reform: Similarly, the state of California, in its efforts to make housing more affordable, just barred local governments from requiring parking spaces at new developments near transit. Similar progress in parking has been bubbling up locally, as every week seems to bring news of another city throwing out or drastically reducing its minimum parking requirements. Rather than letting developers meet their markets, these often arbitrary requirements not only increase construction costs by as much as 38 percent; they also end up locking residents into automotive lifestyles as they create an asphalt landscape in which walking becomes the travel mode of last resort. Minimum parking requirements, which parking guru Donald Shoup aptly calls “a fertility drug for cars,” have been abolished in Buffalo, Cambridge, Minneapolis, Nashville, San Francisco… the list keeps growing, and can be seen at the Parking Reform Network website.
Fighting Highways: By any measure, the U.S. is served by an ample network of state and interstate highways, much of which needs repair. Yet, instead of a “fix-it-first” approach, most states currently have plans underway for a new highway or a highway expansion, typically justified with the three promises of reduced congestion, improved air quality, and better safety. These were the promises put forth by the Texas Department of Transportation as it plowed forward with the $9 billion expansion of Interstate 45 in Houston. Yet almost no highway expansion in history has ever reduced congestion, improved air quality, or bettered safety. Instead, more highways cause more dispersion, more downtown disinvestment, and more driving. This fact, typically ignored by political leadership, is not lost on local citizens, who are fighting against new and expanded highways nationwide, with growing success. Grassroots “highway revolts” have recently stopped expansions in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and elsewhere — including Houston, where the organization Stop TxDOT I-45 has managed, to this date, to put the project on ice.
These three promising trends give us hope, and point a way forward. Rather than trying to walk the unwalkable, let’s rebrand April 7 around making walkability possible. National Housing-on-Transit Day? National Parking Reform Day? National Kill-a-Highway Day? Take your pick.
And if we’re effective and these trends continue, perhaps every day in 2033 can be a day in which more of us can walk to work. Or at least to the corner.
Jeff Speck, FAICP, is a city planner and the author of Walkable City, How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. It has just been reissued in an updated 10th-anniversary edition.
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