No One Walks in Phoenix

Street seen: It's too hot to walk in Phoenix.
John Walters

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.

I'm not complaining, mind you. I wouldn't walk no matter what the setup of our city. But it occurs to me that, at a time when we're paying upwards of $4 per gallon for gas, it would be nice to have the option of walking to work, or to class, or even across the street for a cup of coffee, instead of having to drag our cars along with us because that's how we've been trained by a city that isn't set up for pedestrians.

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