Pittsburgh's reached right age for walking

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So this is what it's come to in Pittsburgh after all the evolution in transportation since the wheel was invented -- we're back to walking everywhere, doing it safely and loving it?

Or in other words, we're no further along than the Native Americans who occupied the same spot 400 years ago? Wouldn't they all have preferred driving cars and getting lazily overweight while mowing one another down in them, if given the chance -- as I thought we were all doing today until some newspaper reading got my attention?

Based on two recent reports in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it seems that few cities have a leg up on Pittsburgh when it comes to walking.

The National Complete Streets Coalition released findings last week that among 51 U.S. metropolitan areas studied, the only one that was safer for walkers than Pittsburgh was Boston. (By safety, they mean you can walk somewhere without being run over and killed. That seems a low threshold to have as a goal, but remember that pedestrians also have to be on the lookout for killer dogs, umbrella points, objects falling from planes and gaping holes in the sidewalk during deliveries to store basements.)

There was some speculation that Pittsburgh scores well in what's called the Pedestrian Danger Index because of its old, narrow street grid that slows cars down compared to those in the flat, wide-boulevard cities in the West and South.

They didn't mention anything about potholes, but we're thinking they're as big an asset to the Pittsburgh Pedestrian Danger Index as they are to car repair shops. It also must help that our traffic signals around here never seem synchronized. (Good job of saving pedestrian lives, traffic planners! We know that must be what's driving you.)

The information on pedestrian safety here came out soon after release of a census report showing Pittsburghers have a relatively strong tendency to walk to work. Among large cities, only Boston and Washington, D.C., have a higher percentage of pedestrian commuters than Pittsburgh's 11.3 percent.

It seems that on-foot fetishists around here love walking so much -- we'd call them pedophiles, I guess, if that weren't already taken -- that they do it even for things beyond getting to work.

"I always had this perception that Pittsburgh wasn't walkable, but when I started walking to work, then I started walking all over the place as well," said Katie Harrison of the North Side. "You miss so much of the city when you're driving."

The growth of housing around the Golden Triangle while retaining our job core Downtown apparently helps drive up our walking-to-work score. It may be boosted as well by some Pittsburghers' lingering refusal to cross bridges and rivers, and God only knows why anyone would want to drive through one of our tunnels at rush hour twice a day. (Actually, it's doubtful God has an answer for that one.)

The Morning File's author did have a friend visiting from Tennessee a few years ago who was a big walker, and he remarked about how friendly our Downtown seemed for pedestrians. We looked at him askance, as we had not the slightest idea of what he was talking about. It strikes us as just one of many locations around Pittsburgh where the eternal man-vs.-machinery "I'm first here" competition for territorial rights takes place.

Certainly, recent advances have taken place, at least from the pedestrian's standpoint. At many busy intersections in Downtown and Oakland and presumably elsewhere, it has become common when traffic signals change for the white "Walk" sign to get a head start of a second or two on the green light for motorists. That would seem to discourage those motorists who treat right turns into crosswalks with the same urgency as a drag-racer hitting the gas pedal.

And the addition of audible signals at certain crosswalks must help some people, along with all of the mandatory curb cuts that now benefit parents with strollers and anyone who dislikes lifting their foot a few inches, in addition to wheelchair users. We've got trails galore that we never had a decade or more ago so people can walk without running into intersection interference while trying to reach the 10,000 steps a day that some health overlords preach as a goal. (The average American walks about half that amount.)

But it's still a little surprising to see Pittsburgh viewed as a walking mecca when so many of its denizens seem to prefer driving up and down rows of a shopping center parking lot in fanatical, frustrating pursuit of a spot close to the door, while passing up all kinds of open spots that would require walking an extra hundred yards.

There must be a word for those people, the opposite of pedophiles -- probably pedophobes.

Gary Rotstein: grotstein@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1255.

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