Like a Man
this time last year, I was doing a lot of hopping and crawling,
and not much walking. My lower left leg was a mess after a
freak encounter with a second basewoman in the coed softball
league I play in. Somehow, I managed to focus the trauma of
our encounter on my leg. The result was that every type of
tissue in that area was seriously disrupted and in need of
repair, right down to the bone. This was accompanied by a
substantial degree of pain and swelling. The Peaceknicks went
on to play in the league championship without me. It was months
before I could walk right again.
Being limited in my mobility gave me plenty of time to think
about walking. Something that I had taken for granted suddenly
assumed great value. As I healed, I thought I was going through
a re-creation of a bizarre evolutionary history of human locomotion:
First you crawl, then you hop on one leg, then you limp, and
finally you assume a smooth walk. I looked forward to walking
As I progressed through my rehabilitation, I began to take
longer and longer walks. Making it around the block was a
major milestone. Then, I began to pursue bigger challenges.
With a bit of a limp, I approached the intersection of Western
Avenue and Fuller Road (near Stuyvesant Plaza) and learned
that I had a whole lot more to worry about than a limp.
While the speed limit on Western Avenue is 40 mph, traffic
is often moving along at a clip closer to 50. Speeding cars
running red lights are also common at this intersection. Walking
out into five lanes of traffic here seemed the equivalent
of taking a leisurely stroll across a shooting range or minefield.
The intersection seemed set up to maximally threaten any walker
who dared to cross it.
As I approached from the southeast I could see a button for
pedestrians to push. The sign for the button did not make
any claims that it would actually stop traffic when pushed,
and I found that I had to cross a busy entrance to a popular
burger franchise to even reach the button. This entrance is
not small and is controlled by the intersection’s traffic
lights. It rivals the entrance to I-87 just up the road. There
are separate lanes in and out with no crosswalk or flashing
signs to tell you when to cross. I envisioned being run down
by a burger eater juggling a soft drink, his mouth crammed
I cautiously made it across the burger highway to the pole
with the magic button. I pushed the metal disk and waited.
The traffic lights went through their regular cycle. As cars
and SUVs sped through the first few seconds of the red light,
a green walk sign lit up on the opposite side of Western Avenue
with an audio accompaniment that sounded like a mutated cuckoo.
As I got almost halfway across the wide street’s crosswalk,
the sign began flashing a warning that I should not cross.
I sped up my limp.
As I got to the curb, I noticed that while the pedestrian
sign proclaimed it safe to walk, cars barreling around the
corner and turning right from Fuller Road had a green light
to go. How could it be safe to cross the street when traffic
is being signaled to proceed and turn across the crosswalk?
This situation seemed to typify the way walkers are treated
on the streets in these parts. The button I pushed did not
stop traffic; it merely added sound effects.
In a growing number of studies, walking has been found to
be one of the healthiest activities that humans can engage
in, but the dominance of cars in the local transportation
mix often threatens the safety of walking. Instead of encouraging
people to use their feet, an environmentally benign means
for getting places, our streets seem to promote the use of
greenhouse-gas-spewing pollution machines.
The walkability of our streets may factor into a disturbing
trend I noticed in census data available for Albany County.
One of the bits of information collected on the census in
both 1990 and 2000 was the mode of transportation used to
get to work. In 1990, more than 9,500, or 6.5 percent, of
county residents reported that they walked to work. By 2000,
the numbers of those walking to work had dropped a dramatic
30 percent, to about 6,600, accounting for only 4.7 percent
of those heading out to work each day. While public transportation,
carpooling, and an “other” category (includes bike riders)
also went down dramatically, the percent of workers driving
alone to work went up from 71 percent in 1990 to 77 percent
During the same decade, according to the Federal Highway Administration,
U.S. fuel efficiency for cars, light trucks and SUVs dropped,
while more than half a trillion miles were added to the annual
miles traveled by drivers in this country. The World Resources
Institute reported that the United States is still ranked
No. 1 in energy consumption in the world (based on 1997 figures)
with the equivalent of close to nine tons of oil consumed
by each person in this country. With the pack of petrochemical
addicts currently occupying the White House, expect these
figures to worsen.
Walking is a transportation mode that doesn’t require oil.
It doesn’t require costly investments for wider roads and
parking lots. It doesn’t depend on huge corporate profits
or threats of international conflict. It’s a simple way to
get around that requires a minimum level of health—and it
actually helps to enhance our health. If we walked more, we’d
be in better shape, degrade the environment less, cut our
transportation costs, help reduce international tensions over
oil, cut greenhouse-gas emissions and maybe even change those
green lights that direct traffic over the paths of walkers
to red. Put your feet to the test.