Where Walkers Fear to Tread

E’s Hometown is Unfriendly to Pedestrians, says a Canadian Visitor

Historic Norwalk, CT's town green originally played host to grazing animals, but is now an island of green in a sea of busy roads and bustle.© Brian C. Howard

Norwalk, Connecticut is not exactly pedestrian-friendly. There, I"ve said it! About 100,000 people live in the city on Long Island Sound where E/The Environmental Magazine is based. But the city simply doesn"t do much to help them get on their feet or ride a bicycle.

Six weeks in Norwalk as an E intern taught me how much road design and drivers" attitudes can influence problems such as global warming. It"s simple: the city"s environment affects the planet"s environment. While I was able to get by with my bicycle and a backpack, tagging along on only a few car rides to other towns, it was all much more stressful than back in Ottawa, my hometown.

It all comes down to treating pedestrians as part of the traffic (as does Ottawa, New York City and Toronto) or obstacles that get in the way and slow down the all-important cars (Norwalk, and I imagine other cities as well). The main problem is the way the city grid was and continues to be laid out: its roads, sidewalks and intersections. Although driver behavior also matters, an improved layout could remedy some bad habits.

Norwalk has many charming and picturesque sights, such as this lighthouse, that could be better accessed by a pedestrian-friendly culture.

Norwalk has many intersections that were seemingly designed to make pedestrians go away. Quite a few offer just two crosswalks. If you"re standing on the wrong corner, presumably you"re supposed to disappear or detour rather than slow traffic. A particular one, on my daily route to E, has one crosswalk, connecting just two of the four corners. So people on foot ought to do
what, exactly? Crossing is not a huge problem, but it involves a few steps over sidewalks and medians, and you certainly have to dodge traffic. This is a main thoroughfare, too. Shops, offices and a museum create a perfectly reasonable place to want to walk. Of course, returning by car from an out-of-town trip, the spot seemed efficient and well-designed by comparison!

Many American towns appear to have these same design flaws. Leave the main streets, and sidewalks are bound to end suddenly. Usually, there"s no easy explanation, like a town boundary or a big intersection. Perhaps the budget ran out halfway. Occasionally, the sidewalks end and become sand piles, as though a desert had crept up and left the city planners baffled. Sometimes a short sidewalk-free stretch forces pedestrians onto the shoulder of a four-lane road, if they dare to keep walking.

At other times the sidewalks suddenly switch sides—usually (thankfully) at an intersection with a pedestrian crossing. Such inconveniences take up time and might completely stop the elderly or people on motorized wheelchairs from taking car-free trips.

Even those healthy enough to continue could be deterred by all the crap—quite literally—around. Major routes are usually fine, though there"s plenty of litter, but then you hit an underpass or bridge and find half the sidewalk covered with pigeon poop. At best, it"s disgusting, and at worst it could harm curious children whose parents don"t catch them quickly.

Much of the appeal of the flourishing South Norwalk historic district is due to the heavy foot traffic, though cars are still ubiquitous.© Brian C. Howard

But what takes the cake (or runs over the pedestrian) in Norwalk is the way crosswalk lights work. You walk or bike up to the crosswalk and hit the button (Norwalk"s are fancy and light-sensitive; perhaps that"s where the budget went) and wait. And wait some more. Eventually, often after all the drivers have had their turn, the pedestrian signals say to cross.

All the traffic signals go to red at once, and all the cars stop. It sounds nice. But someone who can"t traverse two sides in the short time the signal allows might have to push the button a second time and wait quite a while at any given crossing.

What"s worse, though, is the attitude created by a system that makes pedestrians subservient to traffic. Since cars might injure them or they might slow cars down, they"re given a separate time to cross—almost always as an unnecessary extra that inconveniences everybody. I often didn"t bother to press the button and just crossed when it was clearly safe. That way, everyone waited less. The entire intersection didn"t have to stop while one lone pedestrian crossed one side.

I don"t want to focus solely on the negatives, but where Norwalk goes wrong, places such as New York and Ottawa mostly excel. Compare Norwalk"s individually wrapped pedestrian crossings to Ottawa, where signals allow people saving fossil fuel to cross whenever it makes sense. The pedestrian light flowing in the same direction as cars is almost always green, whether anyone showed up and pushed a button in time or not. Turning cars can wait until pedestrians pass.

Sidewalks in Ottawa are clean and hardly ever disappear, unless under construction. Almost all intersections have at least three crosswalks, so that you can legally and safely reach any corner.

What"s more, Ottawa (which also has a very large "car-free" movement) has easily accessible public transit that can get you almost anywhere. Buses on large routes have bicycle carriers on the front, so you can ride to a bus stop, board and, once you leave the bus, ride to your destination. With the city"s extensive bike paths, you have a safe and pleasant way to commute. For argument"s sake, you should know that the city"s bus rides are Canada"s most expensive and the system still loses money. Yet highways and fossil-fuel pollution also cost a lot.

New England charm in Norwalk's Rowayton district.© Brian C. Howard

I was impressed to see that Norwalk at least has a bus system, Wheels, even if the buses seem to be empty a lot of the time. I never stepped aboard, partly because bus stops in town do not have signs to explain the routes.

Norwalk"s problems and Ottawa"s bonuses might have mattered less if drivers acted similarly. But Connecticut drivers were among the worst I"ve come across (okay, the Dominican Republic was much worse). They routinely cut off pedestrians. Contrast that with New York City, where cars and pedestrians seem to follow an uneasy truce. People on foot have the moral right of way, even when they don"t have the legal right, but they try not to block cars. In Norwalk, I felt like some drivers might really have run me over if I stepped out, even when the situation and a clearly marked crosswalk gave me the right of way.

Norwalk"s cars don"t just cut pedestrians off, either. Drivers constantly pull across sidewalks and crosswalks to wait to go right or, worse, straight or left. Sometimes drivers need to pull out a bit before they turn, but not when there"s solid traffic which you can see without advancing. And certainly not while you"re waiting for a green light. That kind of behavior is for lazy people, or those with a lead foot.

Though I don"t know the details, I heard while in Norwalk that Connecticut"s driver education system is quite lax. If future drivers are taught more about why they must stop at stop lines, what crosswalks mean and why pedestrians have the right of way, some might follow the rules.

Many small towns in the U.S. are similar to Norwalk, I"d bet. You might be tempted to say, hey, it"s a fairly small city, cut it some slack. But increased pedestrian traffic can actually save cities money. A person walking or taking a bus costs cities much less than one driving.

A final point that th

e Norwalk city council should work on is people parking right on sidewalks, especially on its busier residential streets. Again, it"s a minor annoyance for an able-bodied person, but it could pose a much larger problem for a senior. Writing laws that ban sidewalk parking, or enforcing them if they exist, could help.

Getting people on their feet helps the planet, and it helps the walkers themselves. South Norwalk’s busy shopping district is actually walkable, with close-together shops, pleasant sidewalks and trees—though cars are still all-but-required to reach the area unless you live nearby. But I didn"t have to walk far from this sustainable downtown area to hit the real Norwalk, where cars come first. Perhaps a quarter mile away was an auto dealership with an enormous white SUV on display. The enormous car entirely blocked the sidewalk as it sat there, shiny bumper smirking in the sun, leaving us hapless feet-dwellers to risk life and limb as we walked on a four-lane road.

ADRIAN LAROSE is back in Ottawa after his harrowing six weeks in Norwalk as an E intern.

Editor"s note: The city of Norwalk is currently working on plans to better link pedestrian areas, particularly in connecting the historic South Norwalk area to other parts of the city. Hopefully, this will lead to more walkability in the future.