Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Some buck the tide and choose walking in Memphis

Published July 31, 2012 in the Commercial Appeal

Brooke Sarden, 36, is a native Memphian who spends her time facilitating arts and culture classes for the Memphis School of Servant Leadership, grant-writing and doing work with Playback Memphis and Hattiloo Theatre. However, what might be most remarkable about this busy woman is that she gets around town almost exclusively on foot.

Sarden doesn't drive by choice. "I'm probably the only native Memphian over the age of 16 who fits that bill," she says.

Marc Cohn wrote the popular song "Walking in Memphis," but in reality, most Memphians prefer to drive.

Kyle Wagenschutz, bicycle/pedestrian coordinator for the city of Memphis, says research indicates that pedestrian travel is influenced more by the density and mixture of land uses (having the ability to accomplish many different tasks or visit different destinations in a smaller geographic area) than distance of travel. Additionally, the need to provide safety (or the perception of safety) is extremely crucial to encouraging people to walk more often.

Sarden went to school and lived in Boston for eight years after graduating from high school, and when she returned to Memphis, not driving suddenly seemed like a big deal.

"I suppose I could have looked into getting a car then, but I have a very Midtown/Downtown life, and it seemed like a huge expense to add unnecessarily in the midst of all the crazy gas hikes," Sarden says. Until recently, she always lived in Poplar Avenue apartment buildings, which were walking distance from the grocery and enough restaurants and coffee shops to keep her entertained.

Living on Poplar also gave Sarden easy access to a bus line that would get her as far as Germantown without a hassle. "Short of pouring rain or ungodly heat, I feel OK walking to any place that's less than a couple miles away. That doesn't sound like very much, but you'd be surprised at how Memphians think walking anywhere is absurd," she says, adding that she has friends and relatives who want to drive from across town to give her a ride to someplace she could walk to in 10 minutes.

Sarden doesn't like anyone to think her walking and use of public transportation is primarily a "green thing."

"I'm glad that it is helpful, but it's just what makes the best sense for my life. I think maybe if more people looked at what makes the most practical sense for them, and stopped assuming you can't have a life without a car, then maybe we wouldn't need so many 'Green Heroes,' you know?"

People often ask Sarden about safety. "I won't say I never walk at night, but I try to be reasonable about choosing when to walk and what routes to use," she says. "I think we are a touch paranoid about the dangers of the streets." She believes crimes more often occur in homes and cars, than "on a jaunt to the corner store."

"I don't mean to be flippant about it, but if we ever want a real walkable city, it's ultimately going to be less about strategic positions of stores and shops and restaurants, and more about opening our minds that being a pedestrian is OK," she says.

Sarden is excited about the new developments in Overton Square, but she has visions of people getting in their cars to drive three blocks to park in the new garage to see a show. "It's not always practical to walk, but sometimes I want to scream, 'Get a bigger purse and toss your heels in!' "

In the end, she believes walking is not a big deal — it's more of a mental thing. "I know people who will run 5 or 6 miles purely for exercise, but won't walk a mile and half to get from point A to point B. Crazy!" she says.

Wagenschutz says projects that promote slower-moving automobile traffic, like bike lanes combined with road diets (reducing the number of lanes for cars on a particular stretch of road), also promote pedestrian-friendly environments.

"These impacts include slower moving traffic, shorter crossing distances at intersections, more 'eyes' on the street, etc.," he says. "Moving forward, adherence to design standards in the UDC (Unified Development Code) will help to create more pedestrian-friendly developments and areas of town."

Sarah Bolton, 28, lives in Binghamton with her husband and 2-year-old daughter, Mae. She has a car, but walks four to five times a week. Bolton explains that her walking is almost always a combination of exercising and some sort of task, like taking Mae to the park or the zoo, walking to Walgreens to buy a few things, walking to Easy Way for groceries, walking to Otherlands for coffee/lunch, or walking to the library.

She doesn't really mind the heat, even in the midday, but tries to take Mae out earlier in the morning or later in the evening.

"We have an awesome jogging stroller that has a big basket in the bottom, so it makes it convenient to bring groceries back home," she says.

Fitness is the obvious benefit for Bolton, who is a dancer.

"To me, walking is one of the more perfect ways to exercise. I love to run, but my joints don't like me to run. Walking while pushing a 30-pound toddler and jogging stroller full of groceries provides a pretty intense cardiovascular workout," she says.

From the perspective of a parent, Bolton likes to be able to take time to be observant of her surroundings, and talk to Mae about what she is seeing, hearing, etc.

"And I always love leaving my car parked in the driveway. Spending less gas money and leaving less of an environmental footprint is always a win-win," she adds.

There are some negatives to walking. "Drivers in Memphis have zero pedestrian awareness. Being in the intersection can be terrifying. When I'm crossing the street in a crosswalk people turn left on top of me all the time, and I watch them looking at their phone, spacing out, etc.," she says.

Wagenschutz notes new countdown timers are being installed at signalized intersections, as they are scheduled to be replaced.

Bolton often sees sidewalks that are broken or blocked by tree limbs, bush overgrowth, fallen light poles, and general trash, including glass. "There are still a lot of places that just don't have sidewalks at all," she says. "Sometimes walking in Memphis feels like doing a warrior dash with a jogging stroller."

Complaints about overgrown vacant property, rights-of-way and possible code violations can be made to the Mayor's Citizens Service Center at 901-576-6500 between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday to Friday.

Corey Dugan, 56, director of creative services at Christian Brothers University, has a car, but started walking to and from work about 14 years ago, because it was a manageable walking commute. "It's about 45 minutes each way, which is about what I figured a lot of suburbanites probably spend in their SUVs to and from each day," he says.

At first, Dugan walked for exercise and to a lesser degree to save money on gas and car maintenance. He hasn't saved a lot since it's only six miles a day, but he did lose some weight originally and then stayed a little fitter. "I definitely feel better the more I'm able to walk," he says.

He walks every day unless it's raining hard, and he's set himself some temperature guidelines — between 25 and 95 degrees. He also walks to the grocery store and other errand-type places if he's not getting too much to carry. "I tend to stop at places like that on the way home from work most of the time. I walk to lunch sometimes," he adds.

Dugan enjoys the time he gets to spend by himself, looking at things he wouldn't see in a car, and often listening to podcasts that he'd otherwise not make the time for.

"Some people undoubtedly think I'm weird. Or homeless," he jokes. But he has gotten to know a lot of people whom he sees regularly along his routes. "The joggers and the dog walkers and the folks out watering their lawns — I don't know their names, but we wave and smile and nod every day," he says.

The main drawback to walking is Memphis traffic, Dugan says.

"Drivers don't know how to act around pedestrians in Memphis. They never know who has the right-of-way. They either try to run you down, or they're scared of you and overly polite, which isn't safe either," he says.

Another drawback to walking is sometimes having to find a ride if there's an unexpected thunderstorm. Or if he goes out after work and ends up a little farther away from home than intended.

Dugan thinks more people would walk if they could budget their time.

"People always think they're in a hurry," he says. "Or they budget exercise into their schedule at the gym so they can continue to drive everywhere."

Paul Young, administrator of the Memphis & Shelby County Office of Sustainability, said the city of Memphis and Shelby County Government are working with Livable Memphis, The Urban Land Institute, Memphis Regional Design Center and a host of other groups to design a Complete Streets policy. This policy would ensure that as the city and county take on roadway improvement projects, the design will take into consideration all users, including pedestrians, bicyclists and vehicles.

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