The human species took off only after we gained the ability to stand upright. In fact, the ability to walk is a defining characteristic of our species. But over the last seventy years we have forgotten to harness our ability to walk, contributing to both the obesity epidemic and to climate change. Our car-centric American suburbs contribute disproportionately to both of these crises. People who live in sprawling subdivisions have a higher obesity rate than people who live in compact neighborhoods, and emit more greenhouse gas emissions than their urban counterparts.

To overcome both the obesity crisis and climate change, we need to make it easier, from a design standpoint, to get off our butts and off our cars, and back on our feet. While there is no one size-fits-all answer to retrofit the suburbs into walkable places, here are four approaches worth considering.

1. Start at the center

People are more likely to walk to a destination that is within half a mile, about 10 minutes away. Dan Burden, one of the foremost walkability experts of our time, recommends transforming the centers of suburban areas into higher-density villages that are more conducive to walking and financially attractive to businesses. The suburban community of Kirkland, Washington, is currently going through such a transformation, creating a mixed-use village center at the site of an ageing shopping mall.

2. Implement Vision Zero policies

The Vision Zero safety initiative focuses on eliminating traffic-related fatalities by taking a holistic approach to improve the design of the transportation system.  Vision Zero originated in Sweden, where pedestrian fatalities were reduced by half after implementation. Over twenty-two communities in the US, among them New York City, Washington DC, and Los Angeles, have so far adopted Vision Zero policies. Among the US adoptees there is one suburban county, Montgomery County in Maryland, whose leaders have committed to Vision Zero, and the county government has released a draft Vision Zero plan for public comment.

A big focus of Vision Zero is reducing speed limits. The survival rate of a pedestrian involved in a car crash increases from 20 percent to 90 percent when the speed limit is reduced from 40 to 20 miles per hour. By bringing pedestrians and cyclists on equal footing with drivers, Vision Zero makes roads safer for all users.

3. Make walking fun

Walking can help family, friends, and neighbors feel more connected with themselves, with each other, and with their neighborhood. Community walks have the potential to bring together people from different walks of life, and can be organized by local governments, community organizations, or even by individual residents. There are a number of organizations whose primary mission is to bring people together by walking, including Girl Trek and Walk2Connect, and some have active chapters throughout the country.

 4.  Help those who are already walking

A greater share of low income people now live in the suburbs than in cities.  Many people who are out walking in the suburbs are likely doing it because they cannot afford car ownership. The places traversed by pedestrians in the suburbs are often putting their lives in danger— inexistent or narrow strips of sidewalk alongside high speedways; poorly marked crosswalks; long distances between crossings.

There are improvements that can and should be made to make it safer for people who are already walking. It’s the equitable thing to do, and safety improvements will incentivize others to start walking, including those who may have more mobility options. Small improvements, like adding pedestrian crossing islands to a long crosswalk, help to increase safety and make the walking experience more comfortable.


Much work needs to be done to redesign the suburbs to be more walking-friendly. But not all of it requires heavy lifting, and some of the work can start immediately. Together we can bring about a suburban walking revolution.


During a recent walk near the Aspen Hill Library, I came across this painted manhole cover.

A splash of art has uplifted the entrance to Bethesda metro station. It used to be drab and dank, but no longer. The color unifies the space.




Posted: July 24, 2017 in manhole covers
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The lowly manhole cover has been elevated to jewel in Stockholm, Sweden. Thanks to Dan G. for capturing this photo for me during his honeymoon.



The other day, I spent twenty minutes observing the crosswalk that connects the Giant and Kohl’s on Aspen Hill Road. About a month ago, while driving this route towards Georgia Avenue, I almost ran over a pedestrian who was using this crosswalk. I was on the right lane, and the pedestrian was coming from the left. The car to my left had stopped but I didn’t realize the reason why. I finally saw the pedestrian when she was almost directly in front of my car. Was I just not paying attention, or was there a design problem with this crosswalk (or both)?


In the twenty minutes I observed this crosswalk, a total of of sixteen pedestrians crossed the road. I saw one car (traveling on the right lane towards Georgia Avenue) come to a fast halt to avoid hitting a pedestrian, just as I had done a month ago. The issue seems to be a lack of visibility for the driver on the right lane, when the pedestrian is coming from the left and there is also a car on the left lane that hides the pedestrian. Some solutions to address this include signage telling the driver to come to a stop several feet before the sidewalk, and reducing the speed limit from 30 to 25 miles per hour.


One thing that surprised me was watching fully half of the pedestrians crossing the road illegally, sometimes only a few feet away from the crosswalk.


The POW! WOW! grafitti art event is back in DC. Throughout the Metropolitan Branch Trail and around the NoMa neighborhood, new works of art are coming to life.





As part of the Walking College, one of my assignments this week was to interview pedestrians in my community to find out why they are walking, what they like about walking, and what makes walking difficult in that particular location.

I decided to walk along a stretch of Georgia Avenue in Montgomery County, Maryland, just south of Aspen Hill Road. I drive along here on a regular basis, and I frequently see pedestrians crossing the street mid-block, which is not safe given the 45 mph speed limit.

As I started on my walk, I felt uncomfortable for three reasons. First, it felt unsafe to walk so close to the cars. As they whizzed by I could feel the wind whip up. Second, I had an unfounded fear that I was somehow physically vulnerable to crime, as if someone would decide to snatch my purse at any moment (this fear dissipated as soon as I started walking). Third, I was petrified of randomly accosting other pedestrians to interview them; it seemed so awkward.


I decided to walk towards a sheltered bus stop (Georgia Ave & Hewitt Ave stop), and interview people there as they waited for their bus to arrive. To my relief, this approach worked. I ended up interviewing three women who were waiting at the bus stop (I’ll call them Lady 1, Lady 2, and Lady 3). Here is what the three ladies shared with me related to walking:

  • Lady 1 (~60 years old): We don’t have a lot of pedestrian crossings. Maybe we need an overhead bridge, so we can cross and not disturb the traffic. The other day I saw a bus nearly hit a girl who was at the crosswalk [pointing to the crosswalk in front of the bus stop].
  • Lady 2 (~30 years old): Where Janet Road intersects with Georgia Avenue [a few blocks south of here], there’s a crosswalk but no traffic light. It’s very dangerous. I have to wait until the car stops. There needs to be a traffic light installed there. In general, it feels safe to walk on Georgia; there are a lot of buses here. I like walking to the shopping center, gas station, and grocery store; they’re all within walking distance. It feels safer to walk here than in DC [from a crime perspective]. At the crosswalk in front of this bus stop, there needs to be a sign to tell cars to slow down.
  • Lady 3 (~75 years old): Walking is good exercise. They need to add more time for pedestrians to cross the street [currently the pedestrian countdown signal is set for 30 seconds]. The crosswalk by this bus stop [pictured below] needs to be made into more of a crosswalk.


As Lady 3 was talking, the bus arrived. As she lined up to get on the bus, Lady 3 said she was surprised that she had found things to say. She choked up a bit and gave me a hug before stepping into the bus.