March-April 2012 | Suburban-ology

These Feet Are Made for Walkin

So why isn't that what more of us do?

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Kim Kardashian is contributing to the senseless death of Americans—and I don’t mean just our brain cells.

My theory: A culture obsessed with a woman whose stiletto heels are so high she admits to being afraid of falling off her shoes is a culture where people don’t walk much—unless by “walk” you mean tottering to the car.

In fairness to Kardashian Inc., Kim’s not the cause of Americans forgetting en masse that their feet were made for walking. She’s the spawn of a culture that has been car-centric for so long that many people—especially those bred in suburbs planned and zoned to be driven—have mistaken their own feet for designer shoe displays.

Humans evolved to walk or run, not sit behind the wheel of a car. Many modern ills are the unintended consequences of what Harvard evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman calls the mismatch between the Paleolithic bodies we’ve inherited and the world we’ve created.

Studies indicate that walking vigorously 30 to 45 minutes a day has dramatic, life-extending health benefits. Yet 75 percent of Americans just don’t do it. We walk far less than Europeans do, 87 miles annually compared with 237 logged by Europeans with their pedestrian-friendly cities, according to one study. Less than 3 percent of Americans now walk to work, according to U.S. Census data.

There are reasons to hope that all this may be changing as Americans tire of the life that sprawl has wrought.  

In the 1990s, the nation’s costliest housing was in car-dependent outer suburbs, according to University of Michigan Urban Planning Professor Christopher Leinberger. “Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs,” the Brookings Institution senior fellow wrote recently. “Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift—a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.”

Only 12 percent of potential homebuyers want to live in outer suburbs, a recent National Association of Realtors’ survey found.

Though more homebuyers want to live in neighborhoods where it is theoretically possible to walk to work, restaurants, grocery stores and other businesses, I’m not convinced they’ll really hoof it. Many will just drive shorter distances.

Barriers to walking have been so great for so long that many people have stopped thinking of it as a desirable option. They drive to downtown Bethesda from nearby neighborhoods only to spend more time looking for parking than it would have taken them to walk in.

I’ve stopped walking my dog through my neighborhood near downtown Bethesda because the few sidewalks are often deserted. But I walk into downtown, and pass the same few fellow walkers regularly.

They’re usually slender, wear sensible shoes and speak with a European accent. “Nice shoes,” I’ll say so that I can hear their reply and confirm that they learned their walking ways elsewhere.

So why don’t Americans walk more, even in Bethesda? I asked the most committed walker I know.

Ben Ross, a geophysicist trained at Harvard and M.I.T., hasn’t owned a car in 20 years. He lives in downtown Bethesda, where he can start heating a pot of water for dinner, walk down the street to buy fresh pasta and olive oil, and be home before his pasta-water boils. A longtime advocate of more sidewalks, better public transportation and smarter regional growth, Ross is writing a book on sprawl.

The curving streets that define much of upscale suburbia didn’t happen by accident, Ross says. Designers of the nation’s earliest suburbs, men such as landscape architect Frederick Olmstead, favored large, single-family lots on curving streets with few sidewalks. They did so both for aesthetic reasons and to keep out the pesky riffraff of merchants and apartment dwellers who populated the walkable grids of city streets, Ross says.  

Today, even downtown Bethesda, considered a pedestrian mecca, is rife with barriers to walking. Ross leads me on a walking tour of those he encounters daily. We visit a bus stop near the Metro where riders exiting rear bus doors must fight their way through a wall of shrubbery.

Along a one-way thoroughfare, a sign identifying a key cross street is painted only on one side, as if planners never considered that pedestrians walking against traffic might want to know where they are. A corner with an especially wide turning radius for cars forces pedestrians to brave a lengthier crosswalk.

Across from Barnes & Noble, Ross times the stoplight at one of the busiest, most iconic intersections in downtown Bethesda. The light gives pedestrians just six seconds to enter the crosswalk legally. For the next 24 seconds, a flashing red hand indicates that pedestrians should no longer enter the crosswalk, but those already in it may finish crossing. Finally, the light indicates that pedestrians should keep out of the crosswalk for a full 70 seconds while cars with the green whiz past. Impatient pedestrians cross against the light anyway.

A few minutes later, Ross and I watch scores of drivers break traffic rules just as nonchalantly. We stand at a crosswalk on Wisconsin waiting for a driver to stop as required and let us pass. Driver after driver ignores us and the law. “No wonder Montgomery County has more pedestrian deaths in a year than it does homicides,” Ross says.  

The next morning, Ross sends me a Montgomery County Police report proclaiming the agency’s “zero tolerance” for those who flout pedestrian safety laws and touting its initiative to “intercept” errant walkers and drivers by cautioning or citing them. In fiscal year 2011, officers “intercepted” only 127 drivers as part of this initiative, compared with 2,069 walkers.

Based on my experience on the streets of Bethesda, those numbers are backward.

I wonder if some future anthropologist will unearth this report and view it, as I do, as evidence of a culture where humans forgot that they were born to walk and adapted too well to viewing life through the windshield of a car.

April Witt, an award-winning journalist, lives in Bethesda. Send comments or column ideas to