How far will you go to improve the city, yourself?

A rash of pedestrian fatalities should heighten the need for re balancing our transportation infrastructure – the physical space required for safe and enjoyable walking routes, for example – but without a forceful response from city hall, the fatalities instead reinforce a negative notion that walking is somehow not a safe option unless isolated on a treadmill.

It does seem that in today’s adult world walking has become a specialized act more associated with pure exercise than an option for getting places. A glance at the local school reveals empty bike racks (if there are racks at all), and a generation who rarely walk or cycle to classes when a parent can drive them. Whatever the supposed advantages of a drive-through culture, healthy lifestyles is not one of them.

For successive generations utilitarian walking is fading from consciousness. Between 1969 and 2001 the percentage of students who would walk or cycle to school has dropped almost by 2/3 .

The move from active modes (cycling and walking) to driving have their impact. In her research “KidsWalk: Then and Now,” Christina Kober reports on some alarming trends: in a short 15 year span (1980 to 1995) childhood asthma rates risen from 45.1 per 1,000 to 82 per 1,000, while childhood obesity rates have quadrupled since 1963.

And for parents who drive their kids to school for “safety” reasons, take note: Kober’s research reveals that half the kids hit by near schools are by cars driven by parents of students.

School Boards are not helping, the research suggests, as small neighbourhood schools are replaced by larger but more remote schools, increasing children’s travel distance. This sort of decision is only thinkable in an automobile-saturated culture.

As the late cultural critic Ivan Illich noted “vehicles had created more distances than they helped to bridge; more time was used by the entire society for the sake of traffic than was ‘saved’.”

Not only do cars create distance, Illich saw that “Speedy vehicles of all kinds render space scarce. They drive wedges of highways into populated areas, and then extort tolls on the bridge over the remoteness between people that was manufactured for their sake. This monopoly over land turns space into car fodder. It destroys the environment for feet and bicycles.”

Just as pedestrians have lost ground to traffic, the very idea of what is walkable is becoming lost in the shuffle.

Walking as a primary form of locomotion was once much more common. There is an almost mythical quality to a recollection of “Grandpa Kievell” a master millwright who, in the 19C “walked over the brow of the mountain to work at a furniture factory at Dundas” from his home in West Flamboro. The narrator, ia 1950 Centennial history of West Flamboro, also shares that “Grandpa used to walk to Toronto to do his business.”

Today, most would no doubt drive such journeys. of Hamilton’s daily commuters are driving less than 5k (4.4km, according to the 1996 Transportation Tomorrow Survey). That’s an hour’s walk at an average pace, or a 15-20 minute bicycle ride for those so inclined. As comedian Steven Wright deadpanned “You can walk anywhere, if you’ve got the time.”

Yet the environment where we walk has as much to do with making the choice to perambulate as distance. Looking around we see large sections of the city where walking or cycling is rendered an unpleasant if not dangerous choice. Far from the rustic pathways of West Flamboro, our multi-lane, high speed roadways and expansive gray parking lots are the “car fodder” Illich deplored.

Some of us are fortunate to have pleasant trails to walk or cycle to get places. That we need more should be obvious, and with a Hamilton Trails Master Plan completed and full of promise, the next steps are to get the jobs done.

Yet we’ve seen that obstacles crop up. Some improvements offered in the master plan have already encountered opposition. The plan to expand the trail system along hydro corridors has met stiff resistance from one rural councillor. A new staircase access for the escarpment is being opposed by some mountain residents. And some newer developments like the Main Street entrance to McMaster have failed to improve the lot of pedestrians and cyclists, and have arguably increased the danger for people trying to cross Main Street.

Yes, much to be done. The promise of a new Pedestrian Committee, approved by council, will only bear fruit once they find legs to walk ideas from the committee room through the sometimes confusing maze of ward politics and into action. Yet if the recent experience of the cycling committee has any bearing, it serves as a warning that a committee ignored by council will eventually take a hike. And that’s not a good outcome for anyone.

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