MagazineJuly 2008One Step at a Time

One Step at a Time

At least our ancestors didn’t know any better.

When Americans were falling in love with the automobile a hundred years ago, they simply had no clue they were opening Pandora’s Box. The car wasn’t an environmental nightmare in the early twentieth century. It was freedom, mobility, and an environmentally friendly alternative to the horse-drawn carriage, which left thousands of pounds of manure on our city streets.

One century later, the automobile has moved from obsession to full blown addiction. There is one car for every two people in the United States. There are more cars than licensed drivers. And a Progressive Insurance online poll taken in 2000 showed that 45% of married Americans listed their car as the most important thing in their lives (only 10% chose their spouses).

In 1948, the novelist William Faulkner wrote, “The American really loves nothing but his automobile.” And he wrote that before the ice caps started melting.

Everyday, Americans (myself included) choose their automobile over the welfare of this planet. Sadly, we can’t claim ignorance like our ancestors. You’d have to be an ultra-conservative talk-show host to believe our country’s addiction to the automobile isn’t a significant contributor to global environmental problems.

Cars and trucks are responsible for two thirds of our oil consumption. Transportation is responsible for one-third of our total carbon emissions. And despite rising gas prices, auto emissions are the fastest growing sector of the greenhouse gas equation.

Further proof that Americans are addicted to cars? The most popular solution to the automotive environmental nightmare: buy a new car with slightly better gas mileage. That’s like trading a heroin addiction for a methadone addiction; they’ll both kill you, one will just take a little longer.

Fortunately, there’s an alternative to the automobile, a solution so fantastic, so comprehensive in its utility and effectiveness that it makes all other eco-solutions seem trite. It is a solution that tackles not just one of the biggest crises America faces, but several of our cultural problems all at once. The answer to America’s oil addiction, to our carbon emissions, to our obesity epidemic, to rampant diabetes: walking.

Proponents of walking insist the act can reduce everything from our carbon footprint to our waistline. Walking is the silver bullet to diabetes, greenhouse gas emissions associated with transportation, our dependence on foreign oil, obesity, stress, and dozens of other health-related problems. And there are no start up costs. No expensive research into new technologies. No great investment from the American public is needed, just a decent pair of shoes. We’ll even save a fortune on gas.

Sounds perfect, but will Americans ever be convinced to ditch our cars and hoof it on foot? Will our car-addicted society ever walk further than the distance between the parking lot and Starbucks?

“Driving is so standardized in our culture,” says David Levenger, a board member of America Walks, a national organization concerned with pedestrian issues. “Planners rarely think about pedestrians when they’re creating streets and communities. The result is an environment that is not conducive to walking.”

Canadians and Europeans walk twice as much as we do, and subsequently use less gas and have trimmer waistlines on average. In 1960, 50% of all kids walked to school. Today, a mere 15% make the trip on foot. And we can’t blame our long commutes either. While the average commute time in America is 25 minutes, half of the car trips taken in this country are under three miles. A quarter of all car trips are under one mile. We’re not just commuting to work in a car, we’re driving to the corner store for a carton of milk. This is, after all, the country that gave the world the drive-thru.

“You see a lot of parking lots and eight-lane highways in the U.S.,” says Sara Stout, the North American coordinator for the World Carfree Network, a collaboration of international groups promoting the car-free lifestyle. “The priority of transportation planners for the past 50 years has been to allow car traffic to move as fast as possible. The U.S. was an early leader in the proliferation of cars and car culture. Drivers are given priority over all other users.”

The majority of our surface streets lack sidewalks, mass transit rarely ventures into the suburbs, and less than 5% of our streets have bike lanes. And the environment has suffered because of that lack of connectivity and our dependence on the automobile to get from A to B. While car companies offer expensive hybrids as the solution to the environmental blight that is driving, and politicians pitch ethanol, scientists with an eye on the big picture are beginning to portray walking as the panacea that will cure our transportation nightmare as well as the growing obesity problem and all its related diseases.

The International Panel on Climate Control has stated that a shift from driving to walking is the key to mitigating our transportation emissions. Dr. Howie Frumkin, director of the Center for Disease Control’s National Center for Environmental Health has said that a simple act like walking to school or work is “a climate change intervention, an obesity intervention, a diabetes intervention, and a safety intervention.”

“Walking is one of the answers to the big problems of our time,” says Levenger. “We’re not saying people have to sell their cars and walk everywhere….But we want people to think about the costs associated with their mode of transportation.”

According to the CDC, if Americans substituted just one car trip a day with a 30-minute walk, the average Joe or Jane would lose 13 pounds a year while cutting U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide by 64 million tons. We’d also collectively save 6.5 billion gallons of gas while shedding three billion pounds.


In 1993, Portland, Oregon became the first U.S. government body to adopt a climate action plan. Active transportation (walking and biking) was a central piece of that plan, earmarking resources for bike paths and sidewalks. Since 2001, Portland has built 100 miles of trails and bike lanes, an effort that has quadrupled the number of bike miles traveled.

“City planners have worked hard in Portland to develop a bikeway network that makes using a bike for transportation easy and safe,” Sara Stout says. “The city’s history has shown that if you build good places for people to walk and bike, people will use those facilities.”

Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a good testament to that theory. Even though the city isn’t exactly known for its friendly climate, an astonishing 20% of all trips taken in Minneapolis are taken on foot or by bike. That’s more than double the amount of pedestrians and bikers in most other American cities. Why? Because 91% of Minneapolis’ roads have sidewalks.

Boulder, Colorado, has created 350 miles of bike paths and sidewalks since 1990. The nonmotorized infrastructure has cut that city’s annual CO2 emissions by 500,000 pounds.

In the Southeast, the community repeatedly cited as the model of alternative transportation is Arlington County on the edge of Washington D.C. In the ‘70s, the county council developed a smart growth plan that spawned Metro stops, a popular bus system, bike routes, and walkable streets. They’re currently trying to find funding for a trolley system through one of their busiest traffic zones and have created a Carfree Challenge, a popular plan that encourages residents to leave their cars at home as much as possible.

“The time is right for these kinds of projects,” says Bobbi Greenberg, director of the Carfree Challenge. “We’re witnessing a sort of perfect storm that’s making these alternative forms of transportation extremely popular. Gas prices, the infrastructure we have in place, the greater understanding of the environmental implications that driving entails…It’s all contributing to a population interested in getting out of their car.”

One of the most ambitious pedestrian friendly projects to date is the East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile continuous greenway linking the Canadian border with the Florida Keys. The project will connect local and state greenway systems throughout the Eastern Seaboard, linking some of the most populated cities on the East Coast. Twenty percent of the route is in place right now, with 20% more expected to come on line within the next decade. When the greenway is complete, you’ll be able to walk from New York to D.C.—or all the way to Miami—without worrying about traffic.

“The majority of users will be local, walking from neighborhood to neighborhood,” says Tanja Wiant, communications coordinator with the East Coast Greenway Alliance. “But the idea is to create a connection between these separate greenway systems so people can travel from town to town. We’re seeing a lot of interest right now from state and local governments who see walking as a solution to a lot of their problems.”

Undoubtedly, the biggest contributor to this increased interest in alternative transportation is the escalating price of gas. In 2007, when gas prices hit $3, there was a stagnation in the total miles driven in this country for the first time in 25 years, according to the Federal Highway Administration. According to AAA, the number of people hitting the road for Memorial Day in 2008 decreased for the first time since 2002 (shortly after 9-11).

The national average gas price is rising to $4, which is still cheap when compared to the international market. Europeans pay twice as much for gas as Americans do. As a result, they use public transportation five times more than we do and use half as much petroleum.

“When gas prices reach $6 a gallon, a lot more people will be walking,” says Sally Flocks, director of PEDS (Pedestrians Educating Drivers on Safety) in Atlanta, where the average commute time is 32 minutes each way.

“What’s going to happen when we reach peak oil? Driving to work 30 miles each way will be a lifestyle of the past.”

David Levenger believes that rising gas prices aren’t enough to get American’s out of the driver’s seat.

“Individual incentive is one thing, but you need to have policy in place to provide the proper infrastructure,” he says. “If driving is not sustainable, then we have to invest our transportation money in something other than roads.”

A couple of key federal bills could help prod people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks. The Bicycle Commuter Act would extend a tax benefit to employers who offer cash reimbursements to workers commuting by bike. And the Complete Streets Act would ensure that all transportation investments made across the country would accommodate pedestrians and bikes. All new roads and road reconstructions would get sidewalks and bike lanes.

“We’re working to create a new set of priorities for the next round of transportation funding,” Levenger says. “At some point, we have to ask ourselves, ‘what world do we want to live in?’ Walkable, healthy communities are not out of reach in the United States.”


Here’s a look at some of the most innovative approaches to the growing automobile epidemic.


The Beltline plan includes 22 miles of light rail and and 33 miles of multi-use trails encircling downtown Atlanta. The ambitious Beltline will connect 45 in-town neighborhoods, 40 parks, and innumerable businesses and downtown destinations, making Atlanta a more walkable community. The process has begun for right of way identification, but bureaucratic hiccups have many questioning if the project will get off the ground. No firm timetable has been established for construction or completion.


Created in Bogota, Colombia, a Ciclovia is when the government bars automobile traffic from several key streets on Sundays, opening up the thoroughfares to bikers and walkers one day a week. The project was hugely successful in Colombia and spread throughout South America during the’80s and ‘90s. Last year, El Paso was the first U.S. city to begin a similar project, closing certain streets to cars every Sunday morning during the spring.


In the heart of the Middle East’s oil-rich Abu Dhabi, construction of the world’s first zero-pollution, zero waste city has begun. Masdar City is a joint venture between corporations and the Abu Dhabi government that will house 50,000 people and become the center of academic and corporate research on green energy technologies. The walled city will be car-free, its citizens moving by light-rail and pedestrian-friendly streets.

Places to Go, Things to See: