No One Walks in Phoenix

I was recently in Ohio, where my plans included taking a walk in the snow. It would, I announced to anyone who listened, clear my head and allow me a privilege I never enjoy in Phoenix: the pleasure of a pleasant stroll in real weather. I imagined lungfuls of clean, cold Midwestern air and a bracing wind at my back; perhaps I'd encounter a like-minded fan of walking in the cold and we'd have a bonding experience.

It turns out that walking in the snow is boring and uncomfortable — just like walking in Phoenix, except cold. There's nothing much to look at, and people who drive past shoot you looks that clearly say, "You poor fool, don't you know no one walks here?"

The experience got me to thinking about how nobody walks in Phoenix, either. I thought about all the times I've been downtown in the middle of a weekday, and the whole place looks like a deserted movie set. (Try this: Sit in a downtown cafe at noon on a Tuesday, and count the number of people who emerge from office buildings and walk straight to a parking garage.) And about the time I was interviewing an architect about some costly suburban development he was doing in Paradise Valley. He'd included an uncovered footpath so that residents could walk from their homes to a local meeting place to socialize.

"You're not from around here, are you?" I remember asking him.

No one walks in Phoenix. There are plenty of reasons why that's so —not the least of which are dehydration and heatstroke — but also because walking makes you smell bad. I was at an art gallery opening last week, and an old friend walked in. As we hugged, he announced proudly, "I walked here!" He needn't have bothered to tell me; he smelled like a sewer. Walking in Phoenix causes people to perspire, and then they arrive at events all wet and reeking of locker room.

You can walk for miles in other big cities — New York and Chicago come to mind — and never be bored because there are things to look at, places to stop for a drink or a snack, and because the sidewalks are properly scaled for pedestrians. I tried walking here once, but it was all the empty lots that did me in. I made it a half-mile before turning back, because all I saw besides litter and hot pavement was the blight of undeveloped vacant lots. Maybe if there were something to look at, Phoenicians would leave their cars behind occasionally.

But there's no pedestrian infrastructure here. Why would anyone (who isn't trying to shed a few pounds) walk from Point A to Point B in a city where there's really nothing to look at along the way? I know what I'm talking about: My spouse is one of those annoying people who bounds out of bed in the morning, straps on an iPod, and heads off for a three-mile hike through the city. He always rolls his eyes when, upon his return, I ask him, "How was your walk? Did you see anyone?"

His answer is always the same: "It's Phoenix. I saw a lot of cars and pavement and absolutely no shade. Why do you keep asking me that?"

I guess because I'm hopeful this will change, one day — not because I plan to take up walking, but because I'd like to have the option of doing so without passing out. And besides, a city designed for walking is a more interesting city. That's the message the City's Downtown Phoenix Urban Form Project has lately been sending, via press releases about a "more integrated and sustainable downtown." The plan proposes a rezoning of residential, retail, and office projects to create a more attractive downtown filled with shade and more pedestrian-oriented streets and sidewalks.

"These are baby steps," my new pal William Janhonen, a green-minded architect, told me. "Usually this sort of planning is done while a city is being planned. So now you've got to retrofit an entire city for planned connectivity, or ways to make walking comfortable for everyone. It's a lot of work, and it's going to take a real commitment from the city to pull it off."

Oh, no.

Bill would like to see Phoenix do what Santa Fe has done. "There, they've got covered walkways and misting systems on the street — whole sections of the city where they've spent the time and money to get people to embrace walking," he says. "People aren't going to walk around in 120-degree heat on 135-degree sidewalks. Phoenix has covered parking for cars — but what about shade for people? The city is going to have to bite the bullet, make some sacrifices of cost and action."

I'll do what I can to remain cautiously optimistic that one day there'll be something more than a few canal-side stretches of shade trees here. It'll help for me to forget that 2006 survey I read online, the one done by the American Podiatric Medicine Association called "America's 100 Most Walkable Cities." Phoenix ranked 33rd; Scottsdale 40th. I'll try to stay focused on the fact that Tucson was 79th on the list.

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17 comments
Porfirio McDiaz
Porfirio McDiaz

Years ago, when Phoenix was still a relatively modest sized city with a low violent crime rate, someone-can't remember who-observed that "Phoenix is the safest city for walking in America, but nobody does."

Concerned Chicago Transplant
Concerned Chicago Transplant

If you can only make it half a mile, you wouldn't like walking in Chicago, either -- you regularly have to walk much more than that to make it to some of the places to look at or stop and get a drink or a snack. Plus, if it's too hot to walk in Phoenix, it's too cold to walk there -- and it's too cold there for longer than it's too hot here.

I mean, this article is dumb from the beginning -- the opening is just a lame excuse to tell the story about walking in Ohio in the cold, and how both walking on Ohio and walking in the cold weren't that great. I mean, it seems like the New Times writers just feel like it's their job to complain about Phoenix as much as possible, since that's what's expected of people obviously too cool to like living here...but it doesn't mean you're still not a whiny bitch when you do it..

helentroy4
helentroy4

There are two speeds in most of Phoenix, jog and sit.

Fresh
Fresh

This article perpetuates the stereotype that no one walks in Phoenix. In the article the author stated his friend walks here...(and see's nothing but empty lots). Maybe the article should have been about how many lazy a** folks there are here. Or maybe how many out of shape and obese citizens there are. He could have quoted a study about the Phoenix area's rank amongst the fattest cities in the U.S. I agree the city isn't set up for well for walking, but places like Tempe make it work decently with public transportation options as well. You just have to find interesting places to walk and get out of the a.c. and get a little exercise!

Danielrm49
Danielrm49

i don't walk in Phoenix and i don't walk because it is hot, i just don´t walk because I could be deported, thanks Joe Arpaio...

willbradley
willbradley

OK now spend an afternoon in a cafe in downtown Tempe / Mill Ave. You'll see hundreds of walkers/bikers/boarders. Why? Shade trees, things to look at, not to mention no underground parking. Plus a young culture that isn't flustered at the thought of using their legs. It's amazing.

And that's why I live in Tempe instead of Phoenix, though I too hope that Phoenix can learn and change (and have seen some hopeful signs of life over the past few years.)

John Villani
John Villani

In reference to Santa Fe, while there certainly are sections of the downtown Plaza area that feature "portals" similar to covered walkways, these serve more to keep sidewalks free of winter's snow and ice than provide midsummer shade. As for misting systems they simply don't exist outside of a few patio bars and aren't needed at the city's 7000 ft. elevation.

Walker
Walker

There's always people out walking in my neighborhood. We have a huge park in the middle of it and people are always out with dogs and kids. Except for in the heat of the summer - then they wait until the sun goes down. The reason why no one walks in downtown Phoenix is because there isn't any reason too. No one lives there so everyone drove in from somewhere else or took the light rail or buses in. Its not like Chicago or New York where people can actually WALK to work. When I would go on walks down town over my lunch hours. I would come in and blow dirt out of my nose. The gray snot was enough to convince me that I was better off walking the stairs in my building and saving my outdoor walks for the relative cleanliness of my neighborhood park.

Beaker
Beaker

People don't walk because 30% of the population is obese, an additional 65% are just lazy. That leaves 5% that may be out walking. There's plenty to see, if that's what you want to do. How about just getting lost in your thoughts? Do you really need to be entertained on your walk? That's kinda sad. Reflect on your day...make plans...solve problems. My wife and I have averaged 200+ miles per month walking and hiking in our time here. We see people out at 4am walking their dogs. We probably see 20 people on a 4-mile morning walk.

There are so many sidewalks, parks, connectors, and greenbelts here. There's no excuse to NOT walk unless you like being fat. It's not hard....one foot in front of the other.

 
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