Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Take a Hike...If you dare.

After 22 hours, I'd had enough.

The ice-mist had been steadily falling since 5:00 PM the previous evening, just before my extended family packed themselves into my aunt's SUV to head home from our Saturday early-Christmas dinner. I don't think I set foot outside the house all day, and I was seized with the sudden need to stretch my legs before night fell again. I decided to leave the rest of my gift-wrapping for later, laced up my almost comically thick hiking boots, donned a winter coat I hadn't worn since high school, and headed out into the sub-freezing afternoon air. 

As I half-walked, half-slid down the icy road that connected my childhood home to the growing commercial hub a mile or so away, I became more and more aware of how much I'd come to take the walkability of DC for granted. The snowbanks, ice and slush that lined the streets were honestly the least of my problems- the sheer lack of pedestrian infrastructure shocked me much more than I thought it would. I mean, I'd traveled the road hundreds of times before, and knew full well that it was basically impossible to get around much of my suburban home city without a car. But when I passed the desolate looking mall...

How many shopping days left?

...and continued toward the roundabout that, on most days, would be controlling the traffic flow through the area...

I think there was a sidewalk here at some point? Maybe? I can't be sure.

...I suddenly realized that I was that guy. The guy that I, myself, had vocally or silently made fun of dozens of times while still living at home. As some hapless walker would hop between curbs, and negotiate the travel lanes like some high-res version of Frogger, I'd voice a mix of sympathy and disdain for this poor soul who either didn't have access to a car, or had somehow CHOSEN not to use one. In the same way that 17 year-old me couldn't imagine wanting to travel any other way than by car, 29 year-old me was taken aback not to be given the option. Not really, anyway- I have to assume that the motorists who slowed to let me cross the street did so only out of the same misguided blend of sympathy and disdain I used to feel, sprinkled with a little Christmas spirit perhaps.

Of course, I made a conscious decision to get to the Mount Auburn Ave. Starbucks the way that I did. Many people, both here in my first home and in my adopted home of D.C., don't get to make a choice about the way they get around every day. And while downtown, Eastern Market, Columbia Heights, and other places I've lived are easily walkable and bikeable, so many parts of town are structured more like my suburban hometown. People without a car or who'd rather not use one are confronted every day with the obstacles I sought out while on vacation. I imagine the thrill of adventure would get old pretty quickly.

I couldn't even imagine what it would take to make this area, and other like it, more pedestrian and bike-friendly. The one half-assed bike lane on one side of the street ran for a whole 100 feet and ended promptly at the curb where the road narrowed after the turn-off. The sidewalks looked like they'd be an afterthought on the best of days.

 But I had to wonder if the area, and the dying mall in particular, might be better off with a few smaller stores and some useful infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists- even to get from one side of the giant retail complex to the other without having to drive in between. Certainly, such a suggestion would be looked upon as wasteful, beneficial only to the few people who live nearby or are somehow both rich enough AND poor enough to be riding bikes around.

If you followed that link, by now you'll know a thing or two about what cycling does for the places that welcome it. So maybe a little bit of investment in non-internal-combustion-engine movement would do the area some good. At the very least, it might lessen the chance of an idiot like me getting hit by a car while sprinting from curb to curb across 4 lanes of traffic just to get a peppermint mocha.  And I think that's a goal we can ALL get behind. So as we close out December and get ready for 2014, let's put our support behind walkable and bikeable communities no matter where we are.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays, keep your 2014 resolutions reasonable, and for God's sake don't fall on the ice. Or off the curb.

-AWG that all the children call their favorite time of year.

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