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It happened again: a pedestrian was struck by a car. This summer has been the worst I can remember, but this is nothing new. Over the years, pedestrians have become an endangered species. It's heartbreaking, and something needs to be done.
When did it start? I first noticed the total disregard for walking people as I headed to work along one of the beautiful paved and landscaped walkways on my university campus almost 30 years ago. It was in the 1980s that delivery vehicles began to park right in the middle of sidewalks, as close as they could possibly get to the front door. What ever happened to loading docks in the rear? The practice has increased since then.
Around that same time, I started to notice it on residential streets. On my way home from work, as I walked toward my house from the bus stop, a car had pulled in off the street, but just far enough to clear the curb, blocking the entire sidewalk, with a long and completely empty driveway in front of it. When I spoke to the driver, she said, "I was only going to be here for a minute." Since then, I have heard this same response many times and it makes no sense to me at all. That short minute is the minute when I as a pedestrian need to use the sidewalk. Long or short, it is blocking my way.
And don't get me started on the snow and ice. One office building on my corner carefully shoveled the sidewalk leading from its parking lot to the entrance, but did nothing where residents walked to the bus stop. These days, in Buffalo, we are lucky if the bus stops and shelters are clear of snow and ice.
But it's not just the disregard of walkers that is making them disappear. There are also fewer of us. I have seen able-bodied persons get on the bus and ride two blocks to their next transfer point. We are losing the habit of walking. I have seen my neighbors driving their kids around the corner to meet the school bus. What message is this sending to the next generation?
So, what can we do to save this endangered species? Well, we already have a domesticated variety and those walkers are safe. Using a treadmill, whether at home or in a gym, will provide the exercise, but in a diminished form, without the wonderful fresh air and endlessly varied, intriguing social surround of the street. We also have sanctuaries. The mall walkers have a somewhat varied and interesting social surround, but they still lack the fresh air.
As with any conservation project, we have begun to address the environmental dangers to the pedestrian species. In Buffalo, the Complete Streets legislation is a small start that encourages better signage, crosswalks and signals that may, in the long run, increase safety for walkers. The idea of Complete Streets also aims to reach the natural enemies of the endangered walker. Drivers may notice pedestrian-friendly improvements on the streets and they may increase their attention to the people in their path.
We have also begun to experiment with breeder programs encouraging the next generation to walk. The Safe Routes to School program is one example of this. This year, we will observe Walk and Bike to School Day on Wednesday. I hope to see many kids, and their parents, out on the streets to celebrate the continuing survival of the endangered species on two legs, the human walker.