Do you remember the walking man on Salisbury Street? More than five years ago when I brought my son to daycare at the Jewish Community Center, I saw him, a middle aged man who dressed in a starched business suit and swung his briefcase during his fast strides. He carried an umbrella in the rain. He wore heavy boots in the snow. For two years of day care morning drop-offs, he was a regular fixture on the street, heading in the direction of downtown. One morning, I slowed the car down, opened the window and called to him to ask about his story. He confessed walking an hour each way to his downtown office and relished the fact that he didn’t need any gym membership. He was in the best shape of his life and loved taking it hare-like down Salisbury as everyone else fast-pedaled. Is he still walking now years later? I no longer have a reason to go down Salisbury during rush hour.
The walking man was a surprising anomalous sight in our sprawling, auto-centric Worcester. We are not necessarily a walking city. It’s time we re-think our orientation to car driving. Walkable places not car dependent suburbs are now in! According to a 2013 study of the National Association of Realtors, over 60% of homeowners want to live in walkable locales.
In 2007, Matt Lerner and Mike Mathieu, two coder geeks developed a computer calculation from 1 to 100 called Walk Score. Using Google Maps, Walk Score evaluates an address and its walkable distance from a range of services and businesses. How far are you from schools, parks, restaurants, a dry cleaner, a gym, a grocery store, a train station? Check out the Walkscore website and you can type in any address to see how it fares for “walkability”.
How does Worcester do for walkability?
It really depends on your address.
- My house off of Flagg Street gets a piss-poor, car-dependent “11”
- Our former house on Bancroft Road gets a somewhat walkable “53” near Price Chopper, Elm Park, Bagel Time.
- Center of Downtown on Front Street gets a “walker’s paradise” “90”
- 8 Ashford Street in Allston, Massachusetts, my former home in Boston hits the jackpot at “96”
There is a potential link between place attachment, happiness and walkability. I felt more satisfied and happy living in the walker paradise of Allston than now when I have become car dependent on the west side. At this point in time, my driver’s license is more useful in my life than my over-blown academic credentials. I am not alone here. Melody Warnick cites a British longitudinal economic study that demonstrated diminishing life satisfaction and increased stress for people who have long car commutes to work. Every minute stuck in traffic or driving decreases joy but being able to switch to a walking commute like the man on Salisbury Street is the best antidote. Here is the link between walkability and place satisfaction: Have a long harrowing drive to work or even basic errands and you may start resenting the faraway place where you live.
Increasing walkability is a key way to improve chances that one can attach to the place where one lives. Think about where you can go on foot within a mile radius of your house. Can you get to work? School? A nice meal out? Church? A corner store to pick up milk? The upside of walking instead of driving is that the walker gets to internalize his or her neighborhood. Urban planning professor Bruce Appleyard discovered that nine year olds who were consistently shuttled in cars to most of their destinations could not make adequate maps of their own neighborhoods. In contrast, those children who primarily walked and biked could draw neighborhood maps detailing streets, homes, places to play, trees. The walking and biking children knew and “owned” their neighborhoods. They were place attached.
So, how could we increase walkability in Worcester?
Wayfinding signs are a great way to support walkability. Investment in improving our sidewalks and making roads more pedestrian friendly through road diets, crosswalks and installation of plantings, trees and even benches could also assist. Mr. Walking Man on Salisbury Street had to navigate through stretches of that main street that didn't even have sidewalks in places!