Car-Free in the Exurbs

Sunday, September 30, 2007

My sprawling subdivision on the road to Northern Virginia is a walker's paradise. There are a few pedestrian-unfriendly features: the wide, curving streets that invite cars to speed, the lack of sidewalks. But we have an alternative, emissions-free network that allows you to avoid the streets altogether. All you have to do is slip out your back door and hit the paved trails that wind through trees, around lakes and from neighborhood to neighborhood.

This subdivision isn't some new urban dreamscape. It was built decades ago. The idea that people might actually enjoy walking is no longer so in vogue, but the trails and views out here make it irresistible. You're more than just a person without a car. You're car-free. People stroll and walk their dogs; they jog from lake to lake, some toting weights on their wrists and ankles, making leisure look like work.

Walkable neighborhoods turn us into walkers, but it doesn't always work in reverse. On their own, walkers can't transform an area into a pedestrian paradise, particularly when there's a highway just beyond the subdivision. Having spent a few weeks without a car recently, I know just how far a short distance can be.

Walking because you have to is different from "taking a walk." While I was car-less, trying to decide if a car in need of multiple repairs was worth fixing, I didn't take many pleasure walks. I saved my strength for hauling groceries, a workout that doesn't get the social validation of hard, ritualized exercise. There are no sporty outfits or equipment for grocery haulers; no one logs the weight of the bags in your arms. Strangers stopped to offer me rides. But it wasn't the walking or the hauling I minded. It was how hard it was to cross that highway.

There's a shopping center a short distance from my house, but getting there involves an obstacle course, complete with a narrow median dividing two-way traffic and roaring trucks. Forget trails; there is no pedestrian route here. You leave the subdivision and there's the highway, a wall with no door. The intersections are an iffy place to be, where you feel the rush of the rigs and cling to the notion that you have the right of way. Once you learn the real length of rush hour (hint: it's a lot longer than an hour), you venture out only at certain times of day.

The battle has been fought all along this road by pedestrians who just want to cross Route 29. But even fatalities have failed to inspire traffic plans that consider anyone but the drivers. At one intersection, the light doesn't even allow walkers time to get halfway across.

There are many people living along this road who, given pedestrian bridges and other features, would choose to walk or bike. It would mean less congestion, lower emissions, less obesity. Build it, and they will walk. A moonlit stroll to restaurants, the movies and cafes. Some would walk to work; others would walk just because they could.

The "mixed-use" development -- where homes and businesses intermingle -- is too often just another asphalt island, disconnected from nearby neighborhoods. You may live within easy walking distance of such a development yet need a car to get there. Some of these projects, like the one where I did my shopping, boast a "town center" (apparently in a parking lot). Some offer additional parking. Some come with shaded parking. What they all have in common: Bring your own car.

-- Sheila Pell


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