I Am That Girl Now

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In which I go off on a bit of a rant.

I didn't grow up in a family that walked places, or who went out of their way to frequent small, local businesses. In my home town, you can tell exactly which areas were developed before the 1970s and which were developed after, because the newer areas have no sidewalks and big parking lots. This is a town of about 15,000 people, and you'd think that urban sprawl wouldn't be a problem for such a teeny place, and yet, there you have it. If my parents wanted to walk to the grocery store, they'd have to walk two miles, part of which would be along the highway. And speaking of the grocery stores, in the twenty years my parents have lived in that town the two grocery stores have moved to the outskirts of town, one on each highway; instead of being located in areas where lots of people could walk to them, now they're surrounded by undeveloped land and giant parking lots. Twenty years, and things have changed drastically.

My parents own three cars. They use two of them on any given day. They walk nowhere. If pressed to use a pedometer, I'm pretty sure they'd log less than 3,000 steps per day.

We are built to adapt to our environment, we humans, and we do it brilliantly. If something is a pain in the ass, and there's an easier way to do it, we usually do it the easier way. It really comes as no surprise that nobody back home goes to the grocery store on foot; they take their cars.

I fervently believe that half the obesity problem in America is due to the fact that we have built our environments to make cars practically the only form of transportation. My general rule of thumb to determine the livability of a neighborhood is this: if it's more than half a mile from a grocery store, if I have to cross anything resembling a highway, if I have to walk on a street because there are no sidewalks-- if any or all of those things are true, then that neighborhood is designed to encourage obesity. It's probably a very nice neighborhood and very quiet and very private, but it's set up in such a way that the people who live there will not be pedestrians, and a pedestrian neighborhood has a leg up on keeping weight down.

My grandmother shopped at a grocery store that was four blocks from her house. I remember it very well; I used to tag along. There was a small parking lot, but for the most part it was foot traffic. When they closed that grocery store, Grandma walked a lot less, and it had a noticable impact on her health.

It frustrates me greatly that this is somehow so difficult. It's easy for people to push the idea of walking 10,000 steps per day-- and I'm a big proponent of it, myself-- but this is significantly easier for someone in my position, where I get about half those steps every day just from walking from our apartment to the El to work and back again. On the one hand, I'm lucky; on the other hand, I've very cold-bloodedly made the decision to live where I live for this specific reason, to live in a city with good public transportation and to live close enough to that public transportation that it's easier to take the train than to drive to work.

We're reaping the rewards of fifty years of development focused on automobile transportation: we're trapped in environments that stack the deck toward getting fat, and that make us utterly dependent on a form of transportation that both pollutes the environment and hamstrings our ability to deal rationally with oil-producing countries. There's so much that would have to be done to reverse this that it's just overwhelming, and in the meantime we have to live in this world, have to choose between spending a ton on mortgages in an environment condusive to pedestrian traffic, or spending a ton on car payments and gasoline and have to work in exercise time on top of all the time spent in the car.

This? This sucks. I feel horrible trying to encourage my mother to work more walking into her day when walking anywhere means dodging cars and where walking to the grocery store will make people pull over to ask if you need a lift, because they assume your car broke down. Worse, it makes it into an all-or-nothing sort of thing for her; it's not like she can just walk a block or two to get to a store, she'd have to walk TWO MILES.

My parents once lived in NYC for a few years, and while they were there they were avid pedestrians, both because they loathed driving in the city and because everything they needed was within half a mile or so. They tried to keep this up when they moved back to the Midwest-- I remember that when I was a tiny kid they still had a little metal cart that they'd used for groceries back in NYC-- but the environment just made it too challenging to continue. And this is in a small town, for pity's sake; it's not a suburb (a whole other mutant species of town), you'd think that it might be different there. It's not.

I don't have the faintest idea where I'm going with this. It can't be a call to action, because I don't have a clue what anyone can do about it. Mostly, I think, I'm just-- just sad about it. It grieves me. I had this sudden flash of what my hometown could be like if they'd made all of it pedestrian-friendly, instead of just the pre-1970 parts, and, man, it could have been gorgeous. I wish, I wish, I wish.


  • Great post! I think I'm absurdly lucky because I seem to live in one of the few recently-built developments that features plenty of sidewalks, and there's a whole network of trails behind our neighborhood. I can walk to the store without fearing for my safety; I can walk to the bus station. I had no idea how rare this was becoming until I saw a discussion on another forum. And it depresses me too.

    By Blogger NicoleW, at 9:22 PM  

  • Have you ever read anything by James Howard Kunstler? He's an architectural and planning critic that has written several insightful books about the horrible effects that poor urban planning, centered around suburbia and the car, has had on Americans in the post-WWII period. His current work focuses on oil, but his earlier work, particularly "The Geography of Nowhere", "Home from Nowhere", and "The City In Mind", are really worth a read if you're interested in just how we got to this point. His website is a good place to visit too.

    And I just have to say I love, love, love your blog. I spent several hours yesterday just going over the archives. Your essays are some of the most perspicacious I've ever read.

    By Anonymous shinypenny, at 9:15 AM  

  • Gosh, how on point you are with this post. I am lucky enough to have the grocery store, Subway, my tailor shop, my dry cleaners, and 7-11 all within easy walking distance. When I was fit, I'd make going to Subway part of my cooldown from my nightly walk, which felt great. My parents, however, are in the same situation as yours. If my mom wanted to walk to the grocery store, she'd have to cross six lanes of traffic on a major road upon which most cars do at least 50mph. Fortunately, there's a park nearby and she just walks to it and then does three laps around before walking home. We guess it's about 1.5 miles each day and that's just perfect for her.

    By Blogger Denise, at 3:45 PM  

  • I live in the burbs and have to drive to the grocery store to get food. (though I have run there on a 5k running route I made up once) I'm lucky though that as a family we can walk to the park, athletic fields, convenience store, pizza joints, bars etc. They have made our little city more into a village with tons of sidewalks.

    I do miss living in the city and walking everywhere. I can't live there b/c the school district is one of the worst in our state. I can't sacrifice walking to the grocery store for my childs education.

    By Blogger m, at 11:09 AM  

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