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Walk Like a Man

About 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 again.

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 with fries.

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 in 2000.

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.

—Tom Nattell

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