It’s gratifying when something you’ve suspected for a long time turns out to be true. In this case: yes, pedestrians are important to a community and, yes, being a pedestrian is dangerous.
Having investigated pedestrian-motor vehicle accidents for years, (the vehicles have a better winning percentage than the Harlem Globetrotters) I cross streets very carefully. With good reason, it turns out. According to word out of Washington D.C., walking is 36 times more deadly than driving.
But, where is it deadliest? In the sun-belt cities of the south that don’t have many sidewalks. Chicago, with its grid of streets and sidewalks, is one of the safer walking venues, at least in terms of vehicle contact. Our region, though, does have sections of sun-belt-like sprawl, where sidewalks don’t exist, or don’t go anywhere worth going.
When former Forest Parkers move to these subdivisions, what’s the first thing they complain about? You gotta drive everywhere.
As a result of what I call the “California-ization” of these new communities, combined with couch-potato-itis, walking is way down in the United States. With rare exception, kids don’t even walk to school anymore.
Now, that’s a precious thing, walking to and from school with your friends. In the morning, my friends gave me the moral courage to face the day and on the way home we celebrated. Not that we used sidewalks to get around. For some reason, we thought cutting through yards was faster. Neighbors would install various locks to defeat us but we always found a way to tramp through their yards.
We should be thankful to live in such a walkable community. Because, in a way, pedestrians are an indicator of a town’s state of health.
For example, when I was in high school, my friend and I were walking through an unfamiliar Chicago neighborhood at night. We passed neatly-kept brick bungalows that faced each other across quiet streets. Yes, they were quiet, too quiet. And from each bungalow flickered the electric blue light of televisions. We had the cold realization that we were in a “bad neighborhood.” It wasn’t long before two gang members met up with us. They weren’t afraid to walk the streets but, because of them, everyone else was.
So, it’s a good sign of our town’s viability that Forest Park has foot traffic day and night. We have easy-to-reach restaurants, stores and schools. Yes, our kids can walk in groups to school, commiserating all the way.
Which reminds me. What if our kids couldn’t walk to school? Well, as parents we’d turn into suburban chauffeurs. I caught a glimpse of this job once in front of a school in Glen Ellyn. The street was packed with very bored adults sitting listlessly in their vehicles, waiting for the school bell to ring.
Walking is not just an individual thing in Forest Park. We have walking partners, some who power-walk like they’re getting ready to spar 12 rounds. We have strolling couples. Walking is good for a married couple, because children can’t interrupt their conversation.
So, for our own health and the health of our community, we need to keep putting one foot in front of the other. But, whatever you do, don’t take on any vehicles.
This column originally ran in 2000.