Walking or why health insurance is neccessary but insufficient

I was lucky as a college student.  I lived and fell in love with Paris for six months.  

 I remember the first day I had recovered from my jet lag walking from a friend’s apartment to the half a dozen eighth floor walk-ups that I could afford to rent.  My mouth was gaped, my eyes opened wide and my steps slow and deliberate as I soaked the city in.  I breathed in the patisseries, I inhaled the smell of fresh baked bread, and I began the very deliberate inventory of the best crepe stands (my preference was the green crepery at the Metro station Ste. Germain des Pres). 

I lived, I worked, I studied, I fell in love in Paris, and it was a Paris in which I walked everywhere.  It was not too hard for me to walk eight to ten miles in a day as I woke in the 16th Arrondisemonth, walked across the Seine for morning classes, met up with a professor to assist him in his research, grabbed a bite to eat in the late afternoon, and hurried over to meet a lover for dinner in the 4th before heading back to her place in the 7th or mine in the 16th.  It was an amazing time. 

I could have afforded the Metro, I could have afforded to take cabs, I could have afforded to not wander anywhere near as much as I did, but Paris is a city that screams “Walk Me”.  New York, Boston, Montreal, Washington D.C. also are cities that scream “Walk Me”.    I would walk to a friend’s building and we would have seven choices of good coffee within three blocks, so we would eventually try them all.  I would walk down the Quays to watch the bustlers and hustlers, or hear street jazz near the Latin Quarter. I walked to breathe the city.  I would take a right down Rue de Colonel Combes instead of staying on Avenue Bosquet merely because it was there, and I knew I could eventually get to the Moosehead for my Sunday night Simpsons. 

Urban design made me want to walk.  It helped me lose my freshman fifteen and more while my resting pulse dropped to under 50.  And then I flew back to my parents’ house where the closest walkable cup of coffee was a mile away.  Walking became exercise instead of the way I navigated for my daily life.  I drove or bummed a ride for the rest of winter break. 

Urban design influences our trip taking and our trip choices. It influences our health as well as the Atlantic clearly lays out:

They looked at the three fundamental measures of street networks—density, connectivity, and configuration—in 24 California cities, and compared them with various maladies. In the current Journal of Transport and Health, Garrick and Marshall report that cities with more compact street networks—specifically, increased intersection density—have lower levels of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. The more intersections, the healthier the humans.

“It might not be common for people to explicitly contemplate health when selecting a place to live,” Garrick and Marshall write, “but this research indicates it is worth considering.”…

They also found that wide streets with many lanes are associated with high rates of obesity and diabetes….

The obesity epidemic is becoming a national crisis, but almost nobody connects that with neighborhood design. The connections we’re making there are all about food and exercise. But if we build neighborhoods where exercise is part of people’s daily routine, you would think that could go a long way.”

This makes sense.  Walking as part of daily living is far easier than walking as exercise, and a built environment that facilitates walking as a part of life instead of as a seperate activity in a segregated space and time should encourage more walking. 

Health insurance is important for better health, but the best medical care is only a minority determinant of health outcomes on average.  Most of the determinants are public health measures (clean water is an amazing public good), and personal fitness which is determined by daily choices.  Tilting a built environment towards a sedentary lifestyle will lead to a certain choice set, while tilting the built environment to casual, barely thought about activity produces different choice sets.  Our national policy for the past seventy years has been to create a built environment that enables sedentary lifestyles with attendant health problems.  If we want to think about health policy, we need to think about health financing and delivery sytsems, but also our built environment, our societal stressors and numerous other things that don’t scream “medical” to address our health problems as a society.

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73 replies
  1. 1
    Soprano2 says:

    Great point, when I was in my early 30’s I had a job where I walked several miles most days, and my weight stayed controlled and I felt good. I took a desk job which was an increase in pay and was a regular job rather than temporary, and I gained 40 lbs which I just lost in the past two years. Now I have to consciously exercise by taking Zumba classes and I track what I eat to make sure I don’t backslide. I could bike to my job but it’s not practical because I don’t want to have to haul my clothes and toiletries to work, where I would have to take a shower, dry my hair and put on makeup. (Things are different for women. LOL) My city is the definition of unwalkable; we have bus service but it’s terrible, this is a city that promotes car use.

  2. 2
    evodevo says:

    Yup. Love Paris. My sister and I go nuts there (I’m 68 and she’s 65). However, my husband is a couch potato and our daily excursions, even though we used the Metro a LOT, still wore him out. He just couldn’t keep up.
    The US is now a nation of couch potatoes, with the concomitant health risks. I was in WallyWorld yesterday and saw not one, not two, but four MORBIDLY obese people (400+ at least) waddling around – oh, wait, two of them were on WalMart scootercarts. When I was growing up, you saw people this size in side shows. No one I knew or saw weighed any more than 30 or 40 lbs over normal weight, and 90% of adults were normal weight. What happened?

  3. 3
    rikyrah says:

    This is a good post, and I AM with what you are saying. 40 years ago
    , this would not be wisdom but common sense. Parisians do walk a lot…balancing out their diet… plus they have their culture of cooking everyday with fresh food.

  4. 4
    J. says:

    Ah, the Moose, a great little Canadian bar, nestled in the 6th, where you can watch American football all day (and night) on Sundays. Good times.

  5. 5
    raven says:

    We walk a couple of miles for coffee every morning and the boss lady adds an extra mile while I cook breakfast. I either swim or stationary bike every day at lunch time. Working from home is great.

  6. 6
    everbluegreen says:

    I live just outside Boston, and I walk everywhere. I love it. I walk a mile each way to work every day, and unless I have to go several miles or am in a hurry I almost never take the T. I’ve lived here for 11 years now.

    After the first couple of years, I started noticing that when I travel to other parts of the country where walking is not built into my day, I start to go CRAZY. At first I didn’t understand why I would always feel so antsy and pent-up, but eventually I figured out that my body and mind have become literally dependent on my walking, briskly, at least two miles a day.

    Oh well – there are worse habits.

  7. 7
    CambridgeChuck says:

    My partner and I, both in our 60s, intentionally chose to live in Cambridge, MA, because we can (and do!) walk everywhere, every day: the grocer, the bakery, the fish monger, the dry cleaner, the hardware store, the post office, the subway station, the park, the river. The grocery store is 0.8 miles from our flat. Forgot an ingredient for dinner? An easy 1.6 miles of walking! Cambridge (like Boston, like Paris) was settled and laid out by people who never anticipated automobiles (we don’t even own a car). So our intersection density is quite high, and the number of different routes you can take to different destinations is remarkable. We wish everyone could live in a city like this: it’s going to keep us active for a lot longer than living in a suburb would!

  8. 8
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @J.: yep, the Moose probably stars prominantly in several closely related strands of my life in different strings of the multiverse. In this one, it is a focal point of fond memories and smiles but that is it.

  9. 9
    Nicole says:

    I moved to NYC for college over 20 years ago and haven’t owned a car in all that time. Required everyday walking does do a great deal for one’s health. And it’s pleasurable, too. Walking is nice. Fresh air, things to look at- it’s nice. Compared to driving, where I end up stressed and angry at half the yahoos not signaling lane changes, I am a much better as a pedestrian.

    A Target/Costco complex opened a few years ago about a mile-and-a-half from where I live and the toddler and I would take weekly treks there. A friend was dumbfounded that I would push the stroller all the way there and back, but it never occurred to me that it was a long way. Now, when I would take the kiddo over the 145th Street bridge to go to the Home Depot in the Bronx, in 90 degree weather, that felt like a long way. But walking over bridges is one of the best parts of long walks!

  10. 10
    RSA says:

    Those little street diagrams in the Atlantic article are common in arguments against suburban sprawl; it’s not only health but but car pollution, wasted time, and so forth that they affect. I used to live in a little German town where we could walk to get almost anything we needed in day-to-day living. People seemed pretty healthy, if you can judge by pensioners riding their bicycles on the streets.

    Today I live in a house just 0.3 miles away from a beautiful county park. Google maps once told me it would take 58 seconds to drive there, or 7 minutes to walk. But the road there has a 45 mph speed limit that everyone ignores and no shoulder. So I have to drive to talk a nice walk.

  11. 11

    Paris is a wonderful walking city, but be sure you don’t do it in ill-fitting jeans in December when you have no cash on a Sunday and need to get from the Louvre to your hotel in Arrondissmente 8me when the wind is coming down the Seine like the TGV.

    My partner and I found that out in 1985 when he spent our last few francs on a set of rosary beads at Notre Dame and there was no place to cash a traveler’s check and the cabs didn’t take Visa. So we walked in thin jackets and chafing jeans (his luggage had been lost on the flight and he was wearing a pair of mine) all the way from the Louvre to the hotel on Rue Jean Mermot. It was like an Arctic expedition among some of the most beautiful sights in the world.

    Paris taxis are like riding in a smoke-filled land-speeder.

  12. 12
    debit says:

    @everbluegreen: I bike commute every day and do between 20 to 30 miles round trip, depending on my route. I’ve found that when I can’t or don’t ride, within three days I’m angry and depressed. The saying at work is, “As long as Deb rides her bike, no one has to die.” My co-workers and I all hope this will be a mild winter.

  13. 13
    Nicole says:

    @everbluegreen: You are so right about it being a habit! Years ago my husband and I worked a job together in Ohio where we were provided with a car. By the end of the eight weeks, when we would go to a mall, I would ask him to drop me off at the very edge of the parking lot so I could at least walk that far. It was 20 degrees most days, but I didn’t care; at least I was moving.

  14. 14
    Xantar says:

    I recently discovered that my iPhone 5s has a built in pedometer. I was surprised to find out that I was hitting 8,000 steps per day without making any particular effort toward it. I live in one of the rare walkable areas of Baltimore, and my work is a mile away which makes it pointless to drive. I don’t make any particular effort to eat any particular way (just not too much), and I’m quite trim.

    The thing is if we’re going to reverse the policies that have gotten us to this point, we’re going to end up cutting subsidies for suburban and rural living. That’s going to be a tough battle.

  15. 15
    Wag says:

    I agree 100%.

    Walk as much as possible. I was recently in Barcelona, and was struck by the dearth of obesity. My family and I walked 8 miles per day, including our 8 year old twins, just as part of our regular daily routine. It was easy and part if a regular routine.

    We live on a part of Denver that is fairly walkable, and try to walk as much as possible. It still isn’t the same as a truely walkable city, but it’s close.

  16. 16
    Uncle Cosmo says:


    Parisians do walk a lot…balancing out their diet… plus they have their culture of cooking everyday with fresh food.

    One thing I noticed when first traveling around European cities in the 1980s is that refrigerators in urban flats were minuscule, which meant most everyone would shop for the components of the evening meal while walking (or riding bus/Metro) home from the office. There was room for a day or two of leftovers, no more. A feeding “culture” like that of suburban America, where you drive to the store every 7-10 days, fill the back of the SUV with provisions & once back at the McMansion toss them into walk-in-size fridge & freezer, was a logistical impossibility.

  17. 17
    Linnaeus says:


    Working from home is great.

    I work from home most days, and there’s a lot to be said for it, at least for most people. It does present a challenge for me because I’m so easily distracted and therefore often find ways to be doing something other than working. So I’m looking into ways to separate my work space from my home space.

  18. 18
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: yep, I think I was probably buying food to take home 5 days a week. And it was easy — walk back from class, figure out that I wanted veggies and rice, buy 250 grams of veggies, 150 grams of rice… practice my really bad French with the clerk, check out the street traffic, and walk another three minutes to my door…. voila

  19. 19
    maurinsky says:

    When I went to Paris I was suffering from severe osteoarthritis and was walking with a cane – and I weighed about 40 lbs more than I do right now. But we walked a lot while we were there, I just had to rest frequently.

    I’d be much better off now if I went to Paris, because my hip has been essentially fused by ankylosing spondilytis, which is a terrible condition for many people to have but has improved my life dramatically.

  20. 20
    Kylroy says:

    @Xantar: Well, we’ll need to make sure people at large don’t have the economic resources to live outside of densely populated areas. Thankfully, we seem to be doing a bang-up job of that.

  21. 21
    chopper says:

    Walked everywhere when i lived in Brooklyn. It was great. Probably averaged 6 miles a day.

  22. 22
    the Conster says:

    I work downtown Boston, and this summer, because of the awesome weather, I’ve been putting my sneakers and my tourist hat on and take my lunch hour and set out – I’ve been exploring all the parks, the wharfs, the fountains, the statues, the memorials, the historical points of interest, of which there are hundreds. Boston has always been a great walking city, but since they tore down that abomination called the SE Expwy that cut off the waterfront from the rest of the city, it has exploded with tourists and families coming in from the burbs to enjoy the walking/strolling/biking/people watching. That’s what’s fun!! The Rose Kennedy Greenway has created a grand boulevard which every world class city has, and the planners deserve huge kudos for making it a linear park and all public space with abundant access to the Harborwalk, another huge walking asset. The open space – which has created awesome sightlines and views of buildings previously hidden has encouraged all the abutting businesses to create sidewalk cafes, and ex-Mayor Menino solicited food trucks to set up shop to further enhance the walking experience. People still drive like maniacs though, so some things will never change.

  23. 23
    raven says:

    @Linnaeus: Yea, I’m in a upstairs office.

  24. 24
    Emma says:

    I live in Miami (well, a newly incorporated town in Metro-Dade County) and found that Miami is easily the least walkable city in the world. Unless you live in Coral Gables or Coconut Grove, which are insanely pricy. In the morning I would have to walk seven blocks to the nearest bus stop for a bus that would get me to work within one hour. A sizable number of the bus stops are just a bench under a sign in the grass — and at 95 degrees and humidity over 100 at 8am it’s pretty much impossible to just stand there, so you pack like you’re going on safari. The nearest major intersection to my house is nicknamed “bumper cars” — I have seen people in wheelchairs harassed by drivers. Also, it’s the typical bedroom-community — not a lot to see. When I walk I just walk in my immediate area, which is a cul-de-sac and not exposed to the crazies with the fake driver’s licenses.

  25. 25
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @the Conster: Driving in Boston is easy if you assume two things:

    1) Everyone should be able to read your mind and vice versa
    2) Almost everyone has no fault insurance

    So just go, as the other drivers should know that you’re going when it is good for you to go….

  26. 26
    Citizen_X says:

    Ah, but you forget AGENDA 21! UN TYRANNY! DFH’S TRYING TO OUTLAW SUBURBS AND FORCE US INTO TINY APARTMENTS! YOU LIKE EUROPE SO MUCH GO LIVE THERE! And behind all of that, the development and real estate interests that profit from sprawl.

    And that is reason #2,568 for Why We Cannot Have Nice Things.

  27. 27
    dedc79 says:

    I’ve lived in Washington for 12 years now, and never had a car until about two months ago (which I got mostly to make frequent trips to/from NY without having to shell out $300 to Amtrak). The city’s biggest obstacle to going car-less was the lack of supermarkets, but that’s changed drastically over the past decade as Whole Foods and Trader Joes have moved in and Safeway and Giant have expanded.

    The other biggest obstacle is that public transportation, and particularly the Metro, were designed more for commuters from the suburbs than for the city’s residents. This remains a problem, but there are at least more city bus routes like the Circulator that have helped fill in some of those gaps, and a new street car system is supposed to be unveiled any day now for a stretch of northeast DC, which will hopefully take off and expand.

  28. 28
    maurinsky says:

    I wish Boston wasn’t so EXPENSIVE to live in. I am going to get my BS in the spring and I’m looking at jobs and the ones I’m interested in are all in Boston, but that would mean moving from a lower cost area to a higher cost area while I’m also sending a child to college.

  29. 29
    the Conster says:

    @Richard Mayhew:

    Also, regarding the lack of helpful signage – because fuck you, that’s why.

  30. 30
    Zoogz says:

    The best four months of my life health-wise was when I lived in backwoods Japan on study abroad while at university. I went there around 250, and left at around 200. There was a ton of walking, but I’d also put about 1,000 or so miles on the one-speed bike they loaned to me. Between that and the food availability while overseas, I felt really healthy….

    …then coming back, I had to have a tonsillectomy, took two weeks to recover, and was back into American habits in my way-too-sprawled town. Put the weight right back on over the course of the summer, even after working an active warehouse job moving school equipment.

    While I’ve been to the gym through the last few weeks in an effort to change my lifestyle, I know that it would be so unnecessary if I lived elsewhere right now.

  31. 31
    Kylroy says:

    @maurinsky: That’s something that kind of gets glided over in a lot of these stories about the wonders of urban living – to get the benefits of this wonderful walkable neighborhood, you’re either fairly wealthy or living in a cramped apartment with vermin issues.

  32. 32
    Ronzoni Rigatoni says:

    @Richard Mayhew: Exactly the reason I love driving in Italy.

  33. 33
    Elizabelle says:

    Excellent thread.

    You could not have planned to screw up people’s fitness and diet more than we have in our American land o plenty.

    Walkable cities are great for the olds, too. Exercise, and interacting with the youngs.

  34. 34
    Shortstop says:

    The ability to walk to almost everything we need (and the presence of public transit for the rest) is a major reason we chose to live in Chicago. As much as I love woods and wilderness and seek them out for almost all vacations, I can’t imagine living anywhere but a city for this reason.

  35. 35
    Shortstop says:

    @Kylroy: That really varies depending on the city. Boston is hardly the norm for housing costs.

  36. 36
    Kristine says:


    Working from home is great.

    Yup. I take Gaby for 2-3 mile walks about 5 days a week because I now have the time. I also eat less now than I did when I drove to the day job because I ate when I wasn’t hungry. I used to use lunch and going to get snacks as excuses for getting away from my desk–I really disliked my old job. Walking 10-15 miles/week plus a few hundred fewer calories per day = 14 lbs lost since last August without a whole lot of effort.

    I will admit that there are some mornings when I would rather stay home, but Miss Demanding keeps bugging me until we go out. I’ve read that people with dogs tend to walk more, and it is true in my case. Gaby helps keep me active.

  37. 37
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @Kylroy: small apartments — yes, or at least large buildings with lots of shared wallls — but vermin — not really as long as you’re aggressive with public sanitation and extermination. There are trade-offs for everything — a 3000 square foot McMansion 15 minutes by Chevy Tahoe to the nearest megamart OR a 800 Square Foot apartment in a high density walkable neighborhood OR 1,600 square feet near the downtown of a slowly revitalizing mill community that finally figured out what it wants to be 30 years after the mills closed OR whatever else — the biggest point is the whatever else by public policy has been amazingly restricted to dendritic settlement patterns for a very long time (past 15 years has been a slow change away from that mainly because the dendrites/cul de sac externalize massive costs onto the community — see Virgninia DOT cul de sac regulations for a good example

  38. 38
    Kylroy says:

    @Shortstop: I admit my personal experience is limited to New York, Chicago, and Madison. I realize Madison isn’t highly urban, but it does have walkable neighborhoods that you can live a 5-10 minute drive from very affordably, or spend three times to get a third the residence and reside *in* the neighborhood.

  39. 39
    Waynski says:

    The first time I went to Paris I was horribly jet-lagged, but my brother-in-law – more well traveled than I am — insisted that we walk from Montmartre up the hill to Sacre Coeur cathedral (which if you go to Paris you’ve got to see – you can see the whole city from up there). From there, we descended into the city center and just walked around, eventually grabbing a bite at a place near the Ritz. I think we must have walked ten or twelve miles, but when we got back to the hotel, I slept for about ten hours and woke up, a little sore, but no more jet lag. Great trip.

  40. 40
    low-tech cyclist says:

    The suburbs and exurbs look like hopeless cases, but there are things that could be done even out there. Too many neighborhoods are built with just one way in and out, onto an arterial roadway.

    I can understand why people want to live in a place without through traffic, but what could be done is to connect adjacent neighborhoods by public rights-of-way just wide enough for a path that kids could walk or take their bikes through, so that they could get together with their friends in the next neighborhood over, and the next neighborhood after that, without their parents having to drive them.

  41. 41
    tesslibrarian says:

    The gorgeous boulevards built by Haussmann were not just for aesthetic beauty: the peasants cannot put up barricades across wide streets, especially if most of them can no longer afford housing in the area anyway.

    That aside, we have, somewhat by accident, been in Paris the last few Decembers, and we walk everywhere. It’s wonderful–and feels like a real loss once we return home. While we will sometimes take the Metro to meet friends for dinner in different parts of town, but typically will walk home afterward. We enjoy staying in the 7th, where we can hear children walking to school in the mornings, and it is residential enough that despite cafes and restaurants near by, it is quiet at night after about midnight.

    When we get home, what I miss is having a full city that is walkable, not just my own lucky neighborhood (when we bought our house, there were merely rumors of a new supermarket going in 1/3 mile from us, and now there is an amazing bakery, a pub, critically acclaimed restaurants, and soon, a gourmet chocolate shop. I asked my husband how we ended up at Fat Corner, he said, “lucky?”)

  42. 42
    tesslibrarian says:

    @low-tech cyclist: It’s a nice idea, but it would mean that the children in the neighborhoods would be out of sight of approved adults for full minutes at a time, and I’m not sure that’s allowed anymore in this culture.

    eta: Also, what if the children develop some autonomy and independent socialization? We don’t want to be Europe…/sarcasm

  43. 43
    Kylroy says:

    @Richard Mayhew: I realize the suburban living pattern was actively pushed for by various public policies, but I think a lot of people who romanticize the dense urban neighborhoods of the early 20th century forget that a lot of people lived there *because they had no reasonable alternative*. There absolutely are folks who live in that environment and love it, but thinking that we can go back to that without the ominpresent poverty that accompanied it is wishful thinking; a lot of people who have the money to move out of the city *will* move out of the city, no matter how attractive it is.

  44. 44
    Richard Mayhew says:

    @tesslibrarian: Oh yeah, that is the basic reason why the big boulevards in Paris are so big — effective lines of sight for grape shot. As a side note, when I was in the Twin Cities, those major streets are also optimized for grape shot — strange.

  45. 45
    EL says:

    Building design also figures in. For some years, I worked in a building with an open, exposed staircase. I took the stairs every time. When my department moved across the street, we had locked staircase, and the “badge open” worked erratically, and only after much fiddling when it did work. No more stairs for me because of the hassle and time.

  46. 46
    Mnemosyne says:


    Depending on how far the bike commute is and how formal your workplace is, it can be doable with the right clothes — when I do it, it’s about 3 miles and I invested in a bunch of Champion DuoDry t-shirts that don’t make me feel clammy all day (I later branched out into dresses from manufacturers like Columbia and ExOfficio that are also sweat-wicking). I do a quick mop-up when I get to work, brush my hair, and I’m ready to go. However, I don’t wear makeup since it’s way too irritating to my rosacea, so that’s something I don’t worry about.

    @low-tech cyclist:

    It turns out that Valencia, CA, which seemed like the least walkable suburb possible when my brother lived there, has a whole system of walking and bike trails that connect all of the neighborhoods away from street traffic. They weren’t something my brother could utilize (he’s a partial paraplegic and walks with a cane) so I never heard about them until a friend from work moved up there and was telling me that she takes her kids all around town using them.

  47. 47
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @tesslibrarian: Damn right you were lucky. When I bought my house in uptown Baltimore over 25 years ago I didn’t pay much attention to amenities within walking distance. Now I’m paying for it. There’s one mini-market & one bus line within 5 minutes’ walk & the bus line doesn’t even run downtown. Everything else, including anything resembling a restaurant, is at best a half-hour round trip on foot.

    It’s a nice little house, but the location has the disadvantages of city living (crowding, high property taxes, sirens & police helicopters circling overhead at all hours) plus all the disadvantages of suburbia.

  48. 48
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:


    There absolutely are folks who live in that environment and love it, but thinking that we can go back to that without the ominpresent poverty that accompanied it is wishful thinking

    Bingo. It would have to be a choice between a shared-wall housing situation and homelessness before I would ever live in an apartment or a townhouse again. A modern subdivision lot just barely gives me enough room to breathe.

  49. 49
    hitchhiker says:

    Thanks for this. May I respectfully say, as the wife of someone who has lived with paralysis for the last 13 years, that it would be awesome if urban planners also recognized that not everybody has working legs.

    Exercise as a part of daily life is MORE important to disabled and injured people than to the temporarily able-bodied.

  50. 50
    tesslibrarian says:

    @Uncle Cosmo: We are in what was one of the early suburbs in our small town. There were a few shops when we moved in, but now it’s much more foodie (minus the Atlanta breakfast chain taking up a space where a local deli used to be). The critically acclaimed restaurants really aren’t everyday types of places to go, price-wise or health-wise (especially the pub).

    Not all the streets in our neighborhood have sidewalks, and we’re close enough to the University that August is a pretty unsafe time as newcomers learn they can’t drive their truck 30mph and text at the same time on these narrow roads. And football weekends? Forget trying to get anywhere.

    And our suburban issues are still there–in some ways worse since our houses are so close together, but we all still have yards to maintain. Our current neighbors, with whom we share a driveway, seem to have come from one of the exurban areas. They freaked out about raccoons in the yard, spray for mosquitoes all summer despite living in a neighborhood that has trees and bushes and vines growing together since the 1920s, and don’t seem to realize that on a street of close, brick houses, your voice and hopped-up diesel engine *carries*. But when you could literally toss them an apple from your window to theirs, you learn to smile politely a lot.

  51. 51
    Kylroy says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism: Thank you. It is possible for someone to not enjoy urban living without being an anti-Agenda-21 lunatic.

  52. 52
    StringOnAStick says:

    I heard a story a number of years ago about an architect you moved from Poland to Denver, and immediately gained 20 lbs; she attributed it to the lack of walking options. Since that time downtown Denver has exploded with condos and urban spaces that are highly desirable, so it looks like her plan to create more of that sort of development worked. Hubby and I are definitely not urban people, but I applaud what they’ve done with the downtown area. Not interested in living there though.

    My husband and I are mountain lovers, but we figured out years ago that where we live now, with bike paths and open space in our back yard in a small town on the edge of Denver, is much more amenable to daily healthy exercise than all the folks we know who “live in the mountains”. Around here that means you live in the foothills exurbs, have a hell-commute of 20 to 60 minutes (without snow), and the only place you can go for a walk is ’round and ’round your lot or the dirt road you and all your neighbors speed on to get between home and their jobs in Denver. No thanks.

  53. 53
    Xantar says:


    I generally support increased public transportation in DC, but I think the street car is a terrible idea. It will be subject the same vagaries of traffic as regular cars unless it gets a dedicated lane in which case all the other cars will experience congestion as they squeeze into fewer lanes. The only advantage of street cars is they are relatively cheap to set up and take down. I’m not convinced that they will be much help.

  54. 54
    What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us? says:

    I live in the DC area and it is definitely walkable, and pretty bike-able and getting moreso by the minute. This is the area where I’ve lived most of my post-grad school life, and I attribute most of the credit for the fact that I weigh only 10 pounds more than I did in high school to its walkability. I walk a mile one way to the metro stop I take to work (or bike 10 miles one way) and usually run a few errands by foot. Also, I eat lunch at my desk and walk during my “lunch” break and all told get about 4-7 miles of walking in per day. That’s a lot of moderate exercise built into daily life.

    @Kylroy: I really don’t get your argument. NY is still very densely populated and not everyone there is poor by any means. SF, Chicago, DC, Boston – all fairly densely populated, walkable, and not a one of them is heavily impoverished. Yes, you do have poor people but everywhere has poor people. I agree that some people prefer suburban/rural areas but I don’t buy the argument that dense populations have to equate to urban poverty.

    The average smaller European town tends to be much more walkable than the American version, and they’re not filled with poor people. Rural communities can be (and were) designed to be walkable. Even here in the US they used to be walkable because before the motor car everyone did walk. But, we abandoned walkability – it was a choice, but not an inevitable one.

  55. 55
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    In theory, though, shouldn’t you guys have even more walking/biking space available since there’s nothing but land for miles around? We just got back from visiting family in the Chicagoland area and we were really envious of the massive network of bike/walking trails available to people. BGinCHI bikes from Chicago to the suburb of Glencoe pretty regularly, all on a separated bike trail. Here in Los Angeles, you can’t even count on having a sidewalk continue for an entire block.

  56. 56
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?:
    Because the economics of the walkable community just doesn’t work out without a density that makes a lot of people think of tenements.

    I understand that a lot of people like rubbing elbows 24/7. I can’t imagine doing it day in and day out with no way to escape. I can’t imagine wanting to live close enough to my last set of coworkers for them to be all up in my business, which would be necessary for us to all live within walking distance of the office.

    I don’t want to live in Mayberry. And that’s what a walkable community at less than a certain high density inevitably becomes. There’s not enough customers to support more than one of anything.

    @Mnemosyne: That’s very different from having your work and shopping within walking/biking distance. We have a wonderful greenway system.

  57. 57
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    Because the economics of the walkable community just doesn’t work out without a density that makes a lot of people think of tenements.

    Um, yeah, you seem to have a very weird idea of what constitutes a “walkable” community. Our small city has a walk score of 66 (national average is 47) and there’s not a tenement in sight, though there is a grocery store within about three blocks, plus restaurants, dry cleaning, schools, doctor’s offices, etc. San Francisco has a walk score of 83.9 and, again, not a whole lot of tenements there.

    Here’s the full list. It’s interesting that most of the cities with poor scores are in the West and so were probably primarily planned around cars rather than walking/public transit.

    ETA: And, yes, I get that not everyone wants to live in a city. But people who want to live further out need to understand that they’ve made a specific lifestyle choice that is going to end up costing the rest of us money to get police, fire protection, medical care, etc. out to them. It drives me nuts when people who decided to live in exurbs then complain about not having amenities like grocery stores nearby.

  58. 58
    Kylroy says:

    @What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?: If people want to talk about making smaller communities more walkable, great, but this conversation always seems to be about the wonders of big cities. I’ve seen a dozen articles by people talking about how nice it was to walk everywhere in multimillion-person metropolis X, and not a one about the 50-100K town that they didn’t need a car to get around. A lot of this “wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all lived like this” writing ignores the fact that most people who lived like that in the past did *not* have a choice in the matter, and that a very significant chunk of the population will put up with a lot of hassle and cost to have a lawn.

  59. 59
    Mnemosyne says:


    My in-laws live in Oak Park, IL, where most people have lawns, and yet the walkability score is 73.

    You seem to think that these things are mutually exclusive when they don’t have to be. As Richard said, it’s a matter of choices that are made by city planners.

  60. 60
    louc says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism: This topic came up on the Atlantic.

    DC, where I live, is not a particularly dense place and is hugely walkable. In fact it has loads of places to get a nature break without even leaving the city: Rock Creek Park, National Arboretum, Kennilworth Aquatic Gardens, Haines Point, C & O Canal, and of course, the National Mall. You rarely can get away from crowds at the Mall, but all of these other places give you serene places to enjoy nature without leaving the city.

    In fact, most US cities are not all the dense. NYC and Chicago may be the exceptions. NYC, still, has plenty of parks that provide respite and it’s getting more all the time. I love what they’ve done with sky trails around the city. You can now bike almost all the way around Manhattan island.

  61. 61
    Kylroy says:

    @Mnemosyne: The walk scores are interesting. My home zip code has 37s for transit and walkability. The zip for my work (a 10 minute drive away) is 57 and 80. While I’d love to live walking distance from work, I would need to more than double my income to live in anything like my current 2 bedroom condo in that neighborhood.

    My experience even in my middling sized city is that downtown real estate is so incredibly valuable that residences in it are either A) Recent luxury construction, or B) Crumbling old construction. I really don’t know what to do about the issue of walkable real estate being too valuable to build affordable housing on.

  62. 62
    maurinsky says:

    I live in a moderately walkable small city – I say moderate because we have sidewalks but curb cuts make it easier to walk on the street than on the sidewalk. I can walk to: a Chinese restaurant (adequate), an Italian restaurant (good for everything but pizza), a Subway, a coffee/donut shop, a laundromat, a convenience store,a package store, a couple of hairdressers, a dojo and a dance studio.

    I used to live in a different neighborhood in the same city where the sidewalks were inside a grass median so there were no curbuts, and I could walk to the library, package stores, a bunch of restaurants, some very good: pizza/Italian, Thai, Indian, Chinese, Vietnamese, burger joint, 5 different breakfast places, hairdressers, dance studio, a couple of different martial arts places, a thrift store…I miss living on that side of town!

    Both places have good access to public transit, but the public transit makes what would be a 10 mile, 15 minute car ride into a 1 hour trip.

    I am very close to a grocery store, but it’s not a safe walk – no sidewalks, no crossing lanes, and heavy traffic.

    My city is really an urbanized suburb – very densely populated, but we have a point something of an acre yard (less than a quarter), in a neighborhood of post-war Capes.

  63. 63
    Kylroy says:

    @Mnemosyne: Awesome. I think the typical American city has way more to learn from Oak Park than Paris, so let’s talk about Oak Park. Discussing connected pedestrian paths and greenways is a very different conversation than dozen story apartments and subways.

  64. 64
    jl says:

    I think also true in smaller towns. Older neighborhoods of smaller town I lived in when growing up in Central Valley have walkability ratings similar to San Francisco. The neighborhoods that sprung up during the early 2000s are about as walkable as the moon. Basically they are walled off middle and upper class ghettos. You have to walk along way to get to one of the entrances and explore the world outside the wall surrounding the development. Then you face a at least a half mile walk or longer to get a major intersection. Waling scores close to zero.

    Add to that, a lot of developers totally ignored the requirement to build walk and bike path through ways, and min parks, and no one called them on it, the towns just let them build houses over them, or just leave them as a patchwork of grass easements that are useless and go nowhere.

    They built real middle and upper class suburban hellholes. I suspect many will go mad living in those things and need lots of meds in the future.

  65. 65
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Mnemosyne: Yeah, I’m talking about having everything within walking distance a la the planned urban development. I’m thinking about what the density would have to be to get more than one of anything to within walking distance of every residence. And I’m defining walking distance as no more than a half hour of walking. You might be willing to walk further to get to work, but not many people would be willing to go even that far on the 95-100 degree at 80+ humidity days.

    BTW, Glendale, CA has double the population density of Raleigh and has the benefit being part of the most densely populated Urbanized Area in the country. Oak Park, IL has almost twice the population density of Glendale and also benefits from being a part of a large Urbanized Area. Things like transit are a lot easier to do in densely populated areas.

  66. 66
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    Should have mentioned above that that’s a half-hour of walking for a healthy person. Probably an hour for me, maybe more, which would make getting around in that community an impossibility, but this topic never takes anything but healthy people into account.

    @louc: And here we get to the crux of it.

    You may not think that 10,000 people per square mile is dense, but trust me, it more than passes the minimum density for making transit a sensible policy decision.

    From Reconnecting America:

    What is the density needed to support transit service? The answer to many people’s annoyance is that “it depends”. It depends on a number of different factors including transit technology, ultimate destination of the rider, and community goals. The general consensus is that 7 units per acre will provide for basic 30 minute bus service. Other research suggests that there is a per capita ridership cap after 20-30 persons per acre is reached.

  67. 67
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    Probably an hour for me, maybe more, which would make getting around in that community an impossibility, but this topic never takes anything but healthy people into account.

    As my parents found out when my dad’s health started failing, living in a town with a walk score of 15 is really, really hard for someone who’s not in great health, because that means there’s also no public transit and no way to get anywhere other than by getting in the car. He was having to drive 2 hours each way to get to his dialysis appointments, because there wasn’t a center anywhere nearby. Their neighbor who couldn’t drive anymore was basically housebound, because the paratransit was unreliable, there was no public transit, and the closest grocery store was 2 miles away with no sidewalks.

    Generally speaking (though not always), towns and cities that get a good “walkability” score also get a good score for being friendly for the disabled since they tend to have wider sidewalks, curb cut-outs, reliable public transportation, etc. You might not be able to walk to the mall from my apartment, as we do, but you would be able to take a bus there for $1 (50 cents if you’re disabled or a senior).

    Again, I’m not arguing that everyone should be forced into cities, because a lot of people would be damn unhappy there. But we really need to do something to keep suburban and exurban areas from being so car-dependent, because it’s not good for anyone.

  68. 68
    Annamal says:

    Wellington New Zealand is the only city where we can get away with not having a car.

    It’s not particularly dense but there are a lot of walkways and green belt which means that not only do I get to walk to town through a forest but I can also choose one of a number of routes (and finish off by getting to work via the harbour.

    It’s possible to have all this wiithout having highrises as the only option.

  69. 69
    Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism says:

    @Mnemosyne: I was actually just automatically clarifying that I’m not talking about having everything — that’s work, groceries, and all other services and shopping that you can think of — within walking distance for me. I guess I’m showing my age; “walkable” to me means “walk everywhere”, not “good transit system”.

    What Richard was advocating up top sounds to me like a planned urban development. And I’m honestly not sure how most people would be able to squeeze in 16-20 thousand steps a day like he did in Paris. (That’s around three hours of walking at average speed.)

    Perhaps you missed the part about a minimum population density being necessary for public transit to be a workable idea? Every one of the top ten walkable cities in that list you linked to is over 7000 people per square mile. The minimum density for 30 minute bus service is around 4500 families per square mile. It can be done with single family homes if the houses and yards are small enough.

    @Annamal: Wow. How long does that take you? We’ve turned a lot of our flood-prone areas into greenways, but trying to walk to my husband’s office, even at his walking speed, would mean about an hour’s walk plus needing a shower once he got there. My old office would be impossible by anyone; I had a 35-mile commute one way.

  70. 70
    Mnemosyne says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    I guess I’m showing my age; “walkable” to me means “walk everywhere”, not “good transit system”.

    They’re not exactly the same thing, but generally speaking, cities/towns that get a good “walkability” score also score well in having accessible public transit and having good bike infrastructure. Basically, having a strong score in one of those usually means the other two follow along, so Portland, the #1 bike city according to that website, also has above-average walking and transit scores.

    I’ve gotten interested in this because I’ve been trying to bike to work more since I only live 3 miles away from work. There’s been a lot of talk lately in bicycling circles about an urban planning concept called “complete streets” that allow for walking, cycling, and car/bus traffic to all use the same space without endangering each other.

    Perhaps you missed the part about a minimum population density being necessary for public transit to be a workable idea?

    I wasn’t sure where you were going with it, so I kind of skipped over it. But, yes, you do need a minimum population density for public transit. Unfortunately, a fair number of people don’t think about that when they decide to move to low-density places, and then they end up being stuck when they can’t drive safely anymore. Since the Baby Boomers are aging, that’s going to become more and more of a problem as people in exurbs or rural areas become unable to get places anymore. I think that’s a spot where services like Uber or Lyft might be able to fill in a gap because they have part-time drivers who only have to work on demand, but most of them seem to be focused on urban areas, not exurban or rural.

  71. 71
    GHayduke (formerly lojasmo) says:

    WHen I talk to my patients about exercise, I always say “30 minutes a day of physical activity, 45 minutes daily if you want to lose weight…It doesn’t have to be anything crazy…a brisk walk will do” is my standard line.

    People won’t exercise…they just won’t, but walking is the most natural thing in the world, next to child birth.

    ETA: my patients typically have received coronary stents for blocked heart arteries, though we care for other patients as well.

    Derp. second edit. I walk or bike an hour daily, usually commuting to and from work.

  72. 72
    karen says:

    I live outside of DC and before 2004, I’d take the metro or two metros to DC, walk to Second Hand Books and Teaism (a great teahouse in Dupont Circle) and just browse. I thought it was stupid to have Metro stops so close together because I could easily walk it.

    Then I got Rheumatoid Arthritis and Fibromyalgia and it went to a screeching halt. Mr RA was severe and I had a very high inflammation point. When I’m not doing all that walking anymore voila, massive weight gain. I took Effexor which made me gain over 50 pounds and even though I switched drugs, I couldn’t take off the weight I gained plus I gained even more from not moving much, forget the exercise.

    I knew I had a problem and this year my insurance let me get 30 days of PT. I’d just started it when I found out that my biopsy was positive for breast cancer. Stage 1 thank G-d. That just took over. I could no longer take anti-inflammatories or my biologic RA drugs and two weeks before surgery I had to go of all RA drugs and since mid July I’ve not been able to go back on them yet. I’m lucky they got all the cancer out but I cannot walk without a rollator to balance me. I’m getting home PT but that’s just 4 sessions. I hope sometime to be able to walk again without my hip and legs killing me after 1 block.

  73. 73
    Annamal says:

    @Sister Rail Gun of Warm Humanitarianism:

    It takes me an hour each way (and there are showers at work) but I am walking along bus routes so I can walk for 20 minutes down to the city centre and hop a bus.

    I find I do my job much better if I get a walk in first

    We have a relatively decent public transport system ( by NZ car loving standards).

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