Friday, July 25, 2008

Where the Sidewalk Ends

Commuting to work.

After being in New York for several months, I was spoiled by the ability to walk everywhere. (In fact, that city's problem is too much pedestrian traffic.)

Back home in Baltimore and I've been trying to walk more. My office is only a mile from my home. I live in the Jones Falls Watershed and the path to work takes me along the edge of the Falls (a spectacular site after a heavy rain). It should make for a nice stroll. Accept for the fact that there are no sidewalks.

The Falls.

The road.

For the first quarter mile, I am forced to walk along a winding asphalt road next to a guard rail. Drivers aren't prepared for pedestrians and they come whipping around corners at twice the legal speed limit. This isn't unique to this patch of road. Baltimore is a car city and its citizens think like drivers. Biking and walking are still anomalies in many places; we don't have an ingrained understanding of how to share the roads. Since pedestrians rarely get the right of way here, even when they have the crosswalk and the light, I've seen dangerous games of pedestrian chicken: frustrated walkers step defiantly into traffic and glare down a car, daring it to hit them.

Last week I ran into my friend Lisa, who also walks to work along this road and we got into a discussion about which side is the safest. Lisa thinks it's better to walk into traffic, so that you can see a car coming and know to jump out of the way if they don't see you. I subscribe to the walking with traffic theory—that driver's will see you ahead of them and have time to react. Of course, I'm constantly looking over my shoulder. Truth be told, we're both taking our lives into our own hands a little.

Rounding a bend, I walk away from the Falls and head up a hill that has some sidewalks, but they abruptly end. They simply taper off for no reason. (It's the same with our bike lanes: they often feed the biker into traffic or end abruptly with no connection to a legitimate route or outlet.)

We talk about the potential benefits of the energy crunch and oil prices, about how more people may take to their bikes or their feet to get around. But in a city like Baltimore, the infrastructure simply doesn't exist yet to facilitate a non-vehicular lifestyle. It would take funds and advocacy to get real sidewalks designed into urban life and to make sure those sidewalks are maintained (and free of the overgrowth that forces you back onto the street, like trees).

What if we decided to zone in a mandate for pedestrian traffic moving forward? Any new development, any road, any steetscaping project must include legitimate pedestrian consideration (and bike lanes). But that would have to start with a belief that cars are not the dominant aspect of a city existence, that they are merely one small part of a variety of transit options.