More so than most places the neighborhood where I live can be painted as being just about anywhere on a continuum from Shangri-La to Shithole. This goes for the streetscape, the human landscape, economic vibrancy, and pretty much anything else one could think of to describe from an urbanist’s perspective.
Walkability is a good example. My home has a walk score of 87:
New York City, famously America’s #1 most walkable city, gets a walk score of 89:
So I live in a very walkable place; theoretically. I can walk to the bank, a produce market, a handful of delis, the post office, city hall, 7 museums, the pharmacy, the symphony, a national park, schooling from pre-k to doctoral programs, my primary care physician, a medical laboratory or two, the dentist, dozens of restaurants, a sports and entertainment arena, the library, the dry cleaner, the bus station, the train station, and various other places.
Do I? Do I walk to these places?
In the last few weeks I’ve walked to the doctor, a meeting at city hall, the symphony, a couple of restaurants, a beer garden, an art show, and the bank. My wife has gone to the library, the music school, and a number of other places as well on foot since she doesn’t have a car on most days. Going back a bit further, perhaps a year, we’ve walked to nearly all of these places once or twice.
It sounds like we walk quite a bit in this most walkable of neighborhoods; but we don’t, not to me. We don’t because we still contemplate, and sometimes choose, taking the car or avoiding the errand altogether instead of walking.
We don’t because theoretical walkability and real walkability are different in some very important ways. In a theoretically very walkable place “there are grocery stores”, but in a truly walkable neighborhood those grocery stores reliably carry the products you need; in a theoretically walkable place “there are shops”, in a truly walkable place those shops contain useful items not found in the average CVS or at the dollar store. A theoretically walkable place can still have somewhat scary or at least very strange people lurking in unusual places, in a truly walkable place there are enough fellow “normal” pedestrians to make one comfortable when one is out and about at a reasonable hour.
So yes, last Saturday my wife and I walked to Nadim’s for dinner before we went to the symphony’s opening night gala. As the concert ended we filed out with 2,000 or so other concert goers, 90% of whom turned right toward the parking garage to hop in their cars and head home, another 5% were being picked up by bus or van on Court Street, by the time my wife and I had taken the turn onto Main Street there were 4 concert goers left (LuLu’s piano teacher and her cellist husband!) and one block later, when we turned on to State Street, perhaps a block and a half from symphony hall…it was just the two of us; dressed up, all alone walking the last 3 blocks home. We didn’t see another soul on the rest of the walk. A street light was out on the highway entrance ramp style Dwight/Maple connector: Not fun. Will we walk to the symphony in October? Maybe.
Then there was the time I didn’t want to walk all the way to the awesome AC Produce to buy a potato. (Well, in truth we NEVER DO. It’s awesome, but it’s slightly too far, and the route takes you directly through a stretch of the South End that’s simply too filled with lowlifes. It’s not fun.) So I walked 3x as far trying to find a spud at any one of a number of truly crappy under stocked and “over filthed” bodegas and some nice specialty markets without any luck. I could have purchased a few mangos or papayas and plenty of sopressata or even prosciutto but nary a potato in sight; Pea Pod and our CSA to the rescue! Walkscore’s formula doesn’t include an algorithm for the likelihood of meeting aggressive panhandlers, and can’t distinguish between a market that can provide staple products and one where there’s plenty of “Gorgonzola dolce” on offer, but no butter; until it does it will be just a well publicized “beta” program.
For my neighborhood to become a walker’s paradise there need to be more things to walk to more often for more people. When we don’t need to check our calendar and our watch to know, not that our destination is offering whatever it’s offering, but to know that enough other things are happening that there will be people actively engaged in going to and fro and that we won’t be the only ones on the sidewalk. My neighborhood will go from theoretically walkable to actually walkable the moment I stop wondering whether we should drive instead, or whether we should just stay home. Walking needs to stop being an act of rebellion and start being an act of conformity