Slate Magazine has recently published a four-part feature on "The Crisis in American Walking." Why do people walk so little? Why is walking given so little importance by urban planners and politicians?
The problem is by no means limited to the US. Just two small examples: during a meeting with a government agency in Bangladesh responsible for transport, one of the officials in the agency said that this was the first time anyone had come to his office to discuss pedestrians. In Sri Lanka, at the end of a long conversation with an NGO official about cycling, the official responded to a question about pedestrians by saying that while he knew of no group in the country working on the issue, he would be delighted if someone would. What local government agencies are dedicated to the pedestrian, as opposed to the car? How many transport policies around the world give more than lip service to walking, how much budget is set aside for pedestrians, how many transport studies even acknowledge the existence of those of us on foot?
So the problem is, to some extent, universal. But is the problem with walking, in the US and in other parts of the world, really about using the wrong term to describe those on foot, or the fact that virtually all trips include a walking portion? Or could a bigger reason be found by tracing the cause the way one is meant to catch terrorism (and terror is a good word to describe the experience of walking in many of the world's cities): by following the money trail?
Let's face it: one beauty of walking is that it requires so little investment, either by the person walking or the government for providing proper infrastructure. Pedestrians can be demanding: we prefer a safe, pleasant, and stimulating environment. A smooth, even, connected sidewalk; shade, interesting shop windows to peek into, safe ways to cross the street, good lighting, benches, trash baskets, bathrooms, some escape from noise and pollution...the list goes on. But none of them is particularly expensive to provide. Cars, on the other hand, are far less demanding. They don't care about intricate details in the landscape, about trees or lighting or other amenities. But they do require a lot of infrastructure for moving and parking, and that infrastructure costs a lot to build.
Consider the recent House bill on transport, which authorizes $260 billion over the next five years for highway, transit, and highway safety programs, while cutting much of the funding for non-motorized transport, including Safe Routes to School—though it would take a lot of $25 million grants to add up to $260 billion. (Source: Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, "House bill unveiled: slashes bike funding," February 1, 2012.) According to SACOG, local governments typically budget only 5-15% of their transport budget to non-motorized facilities, while the state and federal level provide even less, just 1-5%. In California, less than 1% of federal transportation funds are spent on non-motorized facilities.
Requiring little money is not necessarily a virtue. This might seem odd; with ongoing budget crises, shouldn't governments be happy to save millions or even billions of dollars? How much better to provide low-cost infrastructure for the large number of trips that do not utilize a motorized vehicle than to continue building and repairing expensive infrastructure for cars!
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. For one, who will lobby as intensively for pedestrian and cycling infrastructure as for vastly more expensive infrastructure for cars? Sure, the number of people who benefit from the former can be enormous, but do average people hire professional lobbyists? Similarly for other aspects of a non-motorized versus a car trip.
Pedestrians don't demand, in fact they object to, flyovers, elevated expressways, car-centric infrastructure...so much for the big road construction companies. Pedestrians don't require fuel; so much for the oil companies. Pedestrians don't require much of anything, in fact; so much for the car manufacturers and associated businesses.
And people do not go to WalMart or Target on foot, so neither of those giant corporation is likely to put any pressure on governments to improve conditions for pedestrians either.
What pedestrians do support is small businesses, which in turn support the community, both through their contribution to the local tax base and their interest in keeping their surrounding areas in good condition. But small business does not have a big voice in politics.
Pedestrians and the small businesses they support are good for community: they increase safety (perceived and actual) in terms of both road crashes and crime. Again, where are the beneficiaries with their powerful lobbying wing? It doesn't take long to figure out who benefits from crashes and crime; for the latter, consider for instance corporations that run prisons. The economic benefits of safety are obvious, but of little use if there is no one to push for them as hard as those pushing in the opposite direction.
This brings us to another important point: the nature of government. When we use the term, we may think of government as a monolith, a single entity making decisions. But of course governments really are composed of many different sections, and all those sections are composed of individuals. While "government" gains by saving money, that fact is of little use when those responsible for raising funds are separate from those allocating it. Further, those people making decisions about expenditure do not themselves benefit from spending less; rather, their importance is likely to increase with the size of the budget they handle. Who has heard of any official requesting less money?
So while it may seem odd that a corporation can successfully nudge the government commit itself to longterm debt by passing a bill that will reap that company benefits worth a hundred times its lobbying expenses, it all makes sense when viewed at the individual level of the people making decisions. Why should they care, when it's the average taxpayer who foots the bill, not the person who yields to industry pressure? It makes no sense for government overall to agree to a deal that will cost it hundreds of millions of dollars, but it makes very good sense for the person managing the handout.
And then of course there is the short-term nature of most political decisions. Sure, the government would save enormous amounts of money not just on immediate infrastructure costs but on long-term costs for treating the consequences of our car-dependent lifestyle...but what politician will sit in office long enough to reap those benefits? What voter will have the memory of the people who made the decisions that directly benefit or harm them?
The solution, meanwhile, is not to make walking more expensive by, say, insisting on sidewalks paved with gold. The virtue of saving money should be emphasized, but within an understanding of the pragmatic nature of decisions.
Corporate lobbying needs to be restrained, and election campaigns paid for by government itself, not donations. And we need a system of governance that is far more of a participatory than simply a representative democracy, in which more people will get involved in funding decisions at different levels, so that the voices of the many can finally drown out the voices of the few.
Readdressing the balance of power is no easy matter, but the first step is to acknowledge the source of the problem: not the word pedestrian, not the fact that we all fall into that category, but rather that, as with so much else, the root issue is economics. Once we realize that our goal needs to be to out-lobby the professional lobbyists, we can begin to refine our campaigns and increase our chances of success.
My experience in tobacco control has shown that the public can have a stronger lobbying voice than absurdly wealthy multinational corporations...but only if we work in an intelligent, coordinated, and strategic way. The combined forces of road building, oil, cars, and big retail will be impossible to outspend and difficult to out-manoeuvre; again, we can learn from tobacco control, which has made significant progress in preventing the tobacco industry from spending its money (e.g. on advertising) and has had much success in out-manoeuvring the industry.
Rather than waste our energy hand-wringing over names or looking for new ones, let's be strategic in understanding where our advantages and disadvantages lie, and work successfully towards better conditions for pedestrians everywhere.