Wednesday, July 9, 2014

When Your Walking Situation Isn't Ideal

The car-free life is wonderful and liberating in many ways, and if I could, I would give the gift of a walkable, bikeable, transit-oriented neighborhood to every single person. We'd keep all our cars on the outskirts and use them only for camping, intercity travel, and occasional trips to Ikea and Costco. But in reality, that is not the country we live in, and many of us don't have the luxury of living without a car, at least not right now.

Maybe you live in a car-centric city and you can't move right now. Maybe you're moving and looking for a walkable neighborhood, but there aren't many options and they're either cost-prohibitive or don't have the type of housing you need. Or maybe you're in a temporary situation, between jobs, staying with friends or family, and your fate isn't your own right now.

Have no fear: in any of these cases, you can make the best of a less-than-ideal situation and find ways to walk or bike when you can. Or you can choose a new location that, though not perfect, will at least allow you to leave the car at home for many trips.

Know Thyself
Know yourself and what you realistically will and won't do at this point in time. For example, if you have a large family, buy groceries in bulk, have one specific store or market you always shop at, or have few grocery store options in walkable areas in your town, you might never actually get groceries without a car. If this is the case, you don't need to make it a priority to be very close to a grocery store. Especially in towns where supermarkets are only located on wide, ugly, busy "arterial" streets, being near one may actually make your overall situation less walkable.

Pick your battles
In the same vein, choose one or two important places that you know you would love to walk or bike to regularly, and place yourself near those. Is there a farmers' market, park, library, church, or friend's house you visit on a weekly basis or more? Try to be within a reasonable walk or bike ride of as many of them as possible.

Prioritize being close to work
If at all possible, make your workplace one of your priorities. Include all options - walking, biking, or public transit. You might not want to live right near your work if work is in a suburban business park, but can you place yourself near a bus line or bike trail that will take you there easily? Work is the one place you have to get to every day, so eliminating those car trips will make the biggest impact on your life.

Travel sans enfants
When you can, walk or bike to places without your kids, especially for errands like the grocery or hardware store. Without kids, it's possible to cover longer distances and load more cargo, making a car unnecessary. For example, try getting groceries with your bike trailer.

Check transit possibilities
Consider transit possibilities that will take you to some of the places you need to go, and consider if you could bike to a transit stop and ride a bus the rest of the way. If you're moving, look for housing on a bus line. In many mid-sized cities, being close to a bus line will not cost you the premium it will in larger, more transit-oriented cities, so take advantage of that fact.

Reconsider bicycling
Riding a bicycle can open up many doors because it is much faster than walking and does not usually require a sidewalk. When we lived in Suburbia for a time last year, our closest grocery store was a mere 0.5 miles away, but it was a terrifying walk due to missing sidewalks and crosswalks. Our solution was to bike to it. A 1-mile bike ride might just seem silly, but it was fun and refreshing, it felt much safer than walking, and it is much less ridiculous than a 1-mile car ride.

Remember that distance on a bike doesn't matter as much as topography and road choice, so a flat, 5-mile ride along quiet, residential streets is in all ways preferable to a 3-mile ride up a hill on busy streets. Look for trails, shortcuts, and check gmaps pedometer to find a new route to some of your favorite spots.

Keep an eye on new walkable developments
If you plan to move sometime in the future, keep an eye on new developments in up-and-coming neighborhoods. Many of our cities are experiencing urban infill and renewal as a result of the great inversion, which may mean more possibilities open up to you. If you can get in on the ground floor (metaphorically speaking) in an underrated new walkable area, you may be able to get a great deal on a great new lifestyle for yourself.

Consolidate your life
Is it possible to change some of your habits to place more of your needs within walking distance of each other? Try a new grocery store, make some new friends, check into a daycare that's closer to work or let your older kids walk to school so you don't have to make a separate trip to drop them off. Part of the essence of the car-free lifestyle is creating your life as an interconnected geographic fabric, not chopped up into pieces by car trips. See how you can change a few habits and give yourself the gift of that simplicity.

Consider a new city 
The active transportation lifestyle is about more than just getting rid of your car. It is no exaggeration to say that such a lifestyle can have an effect on your health, social life, financial independence, emotional and spiritual life, and the lives and education of your kids. Given this fact, it is not at all unreasonable to consider moving to a new city to achieve your goal of a car-free or car-light lifestyle. Do your research, interview your friends in different cities, and be bold: it will be worth it.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Buses Aren't Best

Like most mid-sized American cities, Spokane once had a lovely streetcar system. The city's small blocks and some remaining tracks are a testament to how Spokanites once got around, from "streetcar suburbs" to downtown for work and play. And like most American streetcar systems, Spokane's was converted to motorized buses with a little help from National City Lines (a front for General Motors, Standard Oil, and Firestone Tire).

Now, again like many American cities, Spokane's only public transit consists of buses, which is not a terrible thing, after all. Buses may get a bad rap, but they are less expensive than building rail options, and they do the job. A city building up a transit system may have an easier time affording buses, and buses are flexible - routes can be opened and closed very quickly.

But as you may have guessed, buses aren't my favorite, especially when I'm traveling with kids. Even when buses manage to be clean, convenient, and safe, like the bus routes in our neighborhood, they miss the mark on many features that can make public transit attractive and efficient. And as I'll mention again and again, public transit that is unattractive and inefficient will fall into a cycle of serving only people who have no other choice but to ride the bus, and bus service will suffer from lack of demand (and most likely a seedy reputation).

Buses get caught in traffic, just like cars
Streetcars, trolleys, light rail, subways, and some electric buses and rapid transit buses have the benefit of a dedicated lane or rail, so they are not competing with cars for road space. Commuters in their cars may see a trolley in the next lane zipping by during morning rush hour and think, "Hmm, that looks nice." The result is efficient transit and a built-in motivator for people to give it a try. However, most city buses share lanes with cars and so get stuck in the same traffic jams, leading to unreliable service.

This can especially cause problems during large events, when buses get caught in lines of cars and fall behind. The people smart enough to avoid traffic and parking during events may be punished by arriving late, or, in even sadder cases, being rerouted. My family had the most ridiculous experience last year of taking the bus to the county fair, only to find when we reached our "destination" that the bus had been rerouted around the fairgrounds, specifically because the fair was in session. With our two kids, we had to cross a 4-lane road, a railroad track, and the gargantuan parking lot set aside for all those cars.

Buses feel impermanent
You just never know with a bus. Schedules change, routes change, today there might be a detour because of construction, tomorrow a cancellation because of weather, special events... you just never know. Of course, it's easier than ever with smartphones to keep up on what the bus service is doing, but that's unlikely to attract new bus riders. And there is the always-scary experience of riding a new route for the first time and not knowing where to get off the bus. Do I pull the cord early and risk walking a mile that way, or do I pull it late and risk walking a mile this way? So many choices.

With rail, if you see a rail, chances are very good that a train will come by eventually. If your destination is near one of the train stops, chances are very good that the train will stop there for you, whether or not you pull a cord. That permanence is very reassuring to new transit users and is more likely to attract the diversity and number of riders you need to keep a quality system up and running (and improving).

Buses are above ground level, making strollers, carts, and wheelchairs difficult
When I took the Metro in DC, traveling with a child in a stroller was no big deal: I took the elevator down or up to the platform, rolled my stroller onto the train, and sat comfortably in a seat with my stroller in front of me. If I had bags or purchases in the stroller, they stayed put for the whole ride, making for seamless transitions.

In contrast, on buses in all the cities I've lived in, there has been a policy that strollers must be folded up, their passengers and contents removed and carried by hand, no matter how empty the bus is. I cannot even begin to describe how inconvenient this is, particularly for parents or caregivers traveling with more than one child. I start out well enough from my home: preschooler on foot, baby in stroller, diaper bag, purse, or whatever tucked in the stroller's storage compartment. By the time I get on the bus, I look like a bag lady: bags on one or both shoulders, baby in arms or in a carrier (which helps a wee bit but not much), stroller in the "free" hand, all while trying to corral a 3-year-old with the mere sound of my voice. I often get the comment, "You have your hands full!" which is figuratively true in so many senses, but need not be literally true.

Unfortunately, the stroller problem is compounded in a city that already has limited transit coverage. If I can't get all the way to my destination and have to walk, say, a mile or more at the end of my transit ride, it's even more important that I have a stroller with me to carry a tired kid the rest of the way. What this means for the city as a whole is that parents with young kids will simply not ride transit, unless they have no other choice. The SUV culture prevails.

Buses are rarely sexy
In Happy City, Charles Montgomery talks about Bogotá Mayor Peñalosa's strategies for making public transit sexy: rapid transit with dedicated lanes and new, clean stations, and shiny, lipstick-red buses. People who had to ride the buses felt better about it, and the new buses attracted new riders. It's such a silly thing, but aesthetics do matter to people. A bus that looks a few decades behind in design is unlikely to attract the ridership of a sleek, modern fleet, whether rapid transit bus or rail.

Good cities need good transit
I am all about walkability, but a key part of living a walking/biking lifestyle is being able to get to those out-of-the-way places when you need to, without owning a car just for rare cases. I prefer walking, but I believe in transit.

There is nothing more convenient than being able to hop on transit, travel to the zoo or museum or concert or wherever, and hop off, not worrying about traffic or finding and paying for parking. What could be better than going out for the night with friends and not having to have a designated driver? Families riding transit with kids don't have to worry about car seats, and they can sit next to their kids and have real conversations, rather than having to concentrate on driving.

Public transit can make or break the image of a city, whether for residents, tourists, or potential residents and visitors hoping to open businesses. The best transit can make a city feel connected, safe, and forward-thinking. And modern transit options, especially non-bus modes like trolley and light rail, are the most likely to attract a wide range of people to the city and the transit system.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Why We Are Car-Free

Whenever I tell someone we don't own a car (which I avoid sharing in this town, depending on the perceived open-mindedness of the person in question), the questions I get in response are almost always along these lines:

"How do you get groceries?"

"What do you do in the winter?"

"What if there is an emergency and you have to get one of your kids to the pediatrician?"

These are all valid questions, I suppose, in a city built primarily around automobiles, where everyone (including people who really shouldn't) owns at least one car.

But honestly, to me, I am disappointed that people are so focused on the "how" of car-free living that they forget, or don't care about, the "why." I find the why so much more interesting, and it is different from what many people assume. Often it seems that people are happy to place us in the ecologically-minded hippie liberal camp, and they leave it at that. But for the record, here are the major reasons we do not own a car.

We never bought a car.

This sounds like a tautological response, but this is an important distinction. I believe it would have been much harder for us to choose a car-free life if we had had to consciously change from a life of car ownership. Selling a car and moving to a more walkable area is much more difficult than never buying a car, much as quitting smoking is much harder than just never starting.

When we married, neither of us had ever owned a car or had access to a car for our exclusive use in adulthood. We were moving to DC shortly after the wedding, so we didn't buy a car then, either. Over the years, we built our lives and various moves around the ability to get around without a car. We grew into car-free adults, rather than having to take the seemingly drastic step of getting rid of a car or two.

We enjoy active transportation.

Walking has been the mainstay of our transportation, exercise, and relational lives for a long time. Having never owned cars, we have both done a lot of walking in the various cities where we've lived. We love to walk together and talk. We love getting to see the world around us as we're traveling, to notice the little details and be able to stop and look. We honestly like the feeling that we've worked hard to get somewhere. We like experiencing the entire fabric of the space between here and there.

Bicycles only entered the picture about a year ago, but we have enjoyed the different experience of cycling. It is fun and surprisingly fast when one is used to walking. Our 3-year-old son is happy to ride his bike at any time, to almost anywhere, making transitions that much easier. We can cover more ground on bikes, while still getting exercise and having the joy of self-propulsion. 

When we do use a car now, we feel odd - stifled, restrained, tired, and cut off from the outside world. Cars have their place in our lives, but for the vast majority of trips, we enjoy being in the fresh air. 

We save thousands of dollars.

Having transportation expenses close to zero, we are able to save a large percentage of our income. When a car is seen as a necessity, like food or housing, it is easy to overlook the fact that cars cost lots and lots of money, every year, and every time you drive. The average American spends over $9000 per year on car expenses. Whether or not we can "afford" this extra expense, we don't like spending money unnecessarily, and we prefer to put it toward more valuable activities. 

There are many ways to make car ownership less costly, such as buying a used car with cash and driving as little as possible. We know that even if we do buy a car one day, we will have developed the habit of getting around in other ways, so we will be able to own just one car and use it for the times when it really is a logical choice.

We're contributing to our community.

Finally (and you'll notice that the altruism shows up in last place), we feel that by not owning a car, we are contributing to our community and world. I'm sorry to say that we are by no means the kind of people who would make such a major life choice based primarily on concern for the environment or the community, but it does figure in to our decision-making somewhat.

First of all, we're doing a little bit of our part to be less wasteful, to limit our carbon footprint, and to take up less space. This is not to say that our food and material goods don't travel on trucks and planes from far away, of course, but we can at least say that we don't use automobiles just to get our little selves around. We have a strong aversion to waste, and using 25 times more energy than necessary to accomplish a task just doesn't suit our style.

Second, by walking and biking, and even riding the bus, we are out on the street, in the community, seeing and being seen by our neighbors. Having people out on the sidewalks and on bikes does so much to promote a feeling of community and safety. It makes us happier, and it makes our neighbors happier. And, as a bonus, we are out seeing what needs to be fixed in the community - crosswalks, sidewalks, bike lanes, bus routes, empty lots - and we are not shy about sharing these issues with our local representatives. If we were always or even usually in a car, we wouldn't notice these problems and likely wouldn't care.

In reality, we are not deciding against owning a car. We do not see this as an absence or a lack, or that we're choosing to abstain from something. We are making a decision for the many wonderful experiences and opportunities that present themselves because of our active lifestyle.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

One Year of A Walking Mama

One year ago this month, I started this blog as a way to work through my thoughts and ideas about designing cities for people, not cars. Okay, let's be honest - I started writing to vent my frustration about living in exurban exile. Much has changed for the better over this year, and I'm glad to still be writing, occasionally about smart growth and occasionally about simple, slow parenting.

I am very thankful to be living in a walkable, livable neighborhood yet again, and I am thankful for any and all of you who have stuck with me this year (or joined us recently).

Things are still changing as my youngest is now old enough for the bike trailer, my eldest is outgrowing the iBert seat, and we're moving into our first summer in our new neighborhood. I'm looking forward to sharing all the car-free fun we'll be having around here in the coming months.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Our (Home) Preschool

My eldest recently celebrated his third birthday, and for about six months or so, people have been asking us about preschool. "Is he going to preschool?" "Where is he going to preschool?" "I know of a great Waldorf-Montessori Spanish immersion classical school that I hear is good..." Apparently, in the quarter-century or so since I was a preschooler, preschool has become a "thing," especially among educated, middle-class parents. I didn't attend preschool as a child, and I get the feeling that preschool then was a different beast altogether.

For one thing, kindergarten seems to be getting more competitive. My sister recently told me that where she lives (a very wealthy, educated, high-tech region), kids are basically expected to come to kindergarten already knowing how to read. And there was the recent outpouring of concern on one side and rage on the other about the state of Oregon testing incoming kindergartners and finding them wanting. I find the trend of demanding more from young kids to be very sad, when it already feels that kids don't have enough time to be kids anymore. And as someone who loves and values reading, I find it troubling when I read research that kids who start formal literacy training at age 4 or 5 have the same reading outcomes but don't enjoy reading as much as those who start at 6 or 7.

Just a few days ago in the supermarket, a woman in her sixties or so asked me if my son, who was perusing the kids' birthday card display, was reading yet.
"No, he's only 3," I clarified, as he is tall for his age and often gets mistaken for a 4-year-old.
"Oh, well, you can still teach him at that age! I'm an old schoolteacher," she replied.
I really couldn't do anything but give her a strained smile in return. To what end and purpose should I try to make my 3-year-old learn to read? How exactly would his 3-year-old's life be improved by knowing how to read right now?

In defense of preschool, I know there are some wonderful preschools that let kids be kids and learn the way kids learn - through play, and lots of it. And if I didn't work from home and I had to deal with childcare anyway, I'm sure I would find a good play-based preschool. But for a number of reasons, we are doing preschool at home with my son. We didn't realize this was such a "thing," either. Sometimes people assume we plan to homeschool, which we don't, but for our situation, home preschool was a no-brainer.

And of course, even for the home preschool set, there are workbooks and videos and curricula galore. We have one such workbook that was given to us by a well-meaning relative, and though my son begs me to read the instructions and pretends to do the work, honestly, I feel like he will have to spend enough of his life filling in bubbles, if schooling continues on its current trajectory.

So then, what are we doing? Lately, I've been envisioning an unschooling / Waldorf approach, with good doses of:
  • Outdoor free play time, every day if weather permits. This will be in our backyard, which has a variety of plants, a soon-to-be vegetable garden (I hope), a sandbox, lots of cozy hiding spots, and plenty of critters, or at any of our local playgrounds.
  • Indoor free play, using open-ended toys made of (mostly) natural materials for optimum sensory experience and lots of imagination.
  • Art, art, art: painting, drawing,collage, dough and eventually clay, nature and seasonal crafts, and crayoning (This is a fancy Waldorf way of saying "drawing with crayons." I feel fancy just saying it).
  • Stories, both library books and stories we make up. 
  • Nursery rhymes and songs with hand motions.
  • Helping around the house. He helps in the kitchen, so he is learning hands-on about measuring, cutting and peeling vegetables, following a recipe, and all of the various chemical and physical processes that go into making bread rise or water boil, not to mention all the math involved in cooking. He has a child-size broom and dustpan, and there are child-accessible rags for cleaning up after spills.
  • Child-directed learning. I don't know what this will look like just yet, but I love the idea of unschooling, and this is basically what this is - looking for learning opportunities everywhere, following the child's leading. When my son shows a new interest in something, I try to follow his lead by finding library books on the subject, telling stories about it, or finding other ways to explore it. Lately, he has been interested in bugs, especially spiders. We've read spider books (there are a lot!), looked for spiders around the house (there are a lot!), drawn webs together, and made a "web" out of rope.
You'll notice that this looks a lot like everyday life with little kids, and it absolutely is. We're combining these experiences with a bit of more structured time out of the house around other kids, such as library story time and the local children's museum. I don't know yet exactly what these years will look like, but I am feeling so blessed and excited to have this special time of learning with him.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Book Review: Happy City by Charles Montgomery

I was lucky enough to bump into this delightful read in the new non-fiction section of the library. Although I've read more than my fair share of smart growth books, it has been a while, so I thought I would give Happy City a chance. And I was so glad I did - I feel very warmly about this inspiring and, well, happy book. It is not overly sentimental or unduly optimistic, but it gives some entertaining and solid evidence for how good design can make us happier, and it has plenty of anecdotal evidence that people can change enough to make his recommendations work. It was also just a lot of good fun (for example, did you know that you are more likely to give to charity when getting off an ascending escalator rather than a descending one?).

I am the first to say that if you care about anything - health, economics, social justice, beauty, family, the environment - you should care about smart growth, and Charles Montgomery really brings every one of these issues to bear on good urban design. Here are a few themes that really struck me as fresh ideas.


"...we all live in systems that shape our travel behavior. And most of us live in systems that give us almost no choice in how to live or get around. Americans have it worst. Even though a majority of Americans now tell pollsters that they would like to live in walkable communities...these places are in massive undersupply." (p. 194)
Trying to convince people that cutting car dependency gives them more freedom is a bizarrely tough sell, considering that "dependency" is right there in the name. But Montgomery explains it very plainly. When cities are built around cars (as in the urban sprawl that has been the major design strategy for the past fifty years or so), well, you pretty much have one option if you want to go somewhere or do anything: get in your car. Whether you are someone who likes to drive or hates to drive, you still have one option: get in your car. Maybe you could walk to that gas station that is a mile or two away, but you can be sure that the walk will be long, ugly, unpleasant, and likely unsafe.

On the other hand, when cities are built around a variety of modes of travel - walking, biking, private cars, public transit  - everyone has more choices. If you like to drive, you can still drive. But if you don't, you have the freedom to travel in a different way. And this freedom is much more fulfilling than the "freedom" cars offer of being able to go wherever you want, whenever you want. That how we get places has a big effect on our happiness.

Also related to freedom, Montgomery devotes a chapter to zoning codes. Zzzzzzzzzz... I can hear you thinking. But zoning codes that mandate sprawl (for example, by requiring new businesses to provide a ridiculously large number of parking spaces, or requiring streets to be a certain minimum width) are behind most of the dispersal that makes cities unwalkable, ugly, and unsafe. In other words, sprawl did not happen as a result of free agents making free choices in a free market. In many cases, zoning codes limited (and still limit!) our urban design choices. 


"By any objective assessment, the happy mayor's efforts to make the poor feel more equal actually made them more equal." (p. 238)
"Most of the noise, air pollution, danger, and perceived crowding in modern cities occurs because we have configured urban spaces to facilitate high-speed travel in private automobiles. We have traded conviviality for the convenience of those who wish to experience streets as briefly as possible." (p. 170) 
The example of Bogotá, Colombia, keeps coming up in Happy City, and it is a good lesson about what designing urban spaces for equality can look like and accomplish. Mayor Peñalosa's initiatives included investing heavily in "sexy" rapid public transportation, so that those who had to use buses felt better about it and got where they were going faster, and so that those who might not otherwise use public transit started doing so. He also created streets that reversed the typical layout of poor streets in developing countries: rather than paving the street to make drivers' (and thus a wealthy minority's) lives easier, he paved the middle of the street for the exclusive use of pedestrians and bicycles, leaving cars to drive on the unpaved sides of the road.

The issue of equality often comes up in urban development discussions: where should limited tax and development dollars be focused? Is it more important for sidewalks and bus routes to be developed in poor neighborhoods because "they are the ones who use them" (an actual argument I've heard advanced in my town)? What of gentrification? Good for poor neighborhoods, bad, indifferent?

While Montgomery admits that social policy is outside the scope of his book, he does devote a chapter to asking "Who are our cities for?" Even if you don't really care about your neighbor, Montgomery argues that societies that feel more equal are better for everyone, rich and poor alike. It turns out that people don't like feeling that they have less worth than other people, and in countries with high income disparity (like our own), this very feeling of inequality leads to all kinds of social ills.


"Cities that care about livability have got to start paying attention to the psychological effect that traffic has on the experience of public space." (p. 167)
All the happiness research I have read comes down to pretty much one thing: relationships. Once you are satisfactorily fed, clothed, and sheltered, the quality of your relationships will make or break your happiness. Fair enough. But how can smart urban design improve our relationships?

First of all, Montgomery addresses the "super commute" and all the other effects of urban sprawl that have us spending hours per week in our cars (often alone). Car commuting, especially over long distances, can not only keep us away from our families before and after work; it creates stress that makes us less likely to enjoy that time with our family when we get it.

Second, our most important relationships with family and close friends are not the only ones that contribute to our happiness. Montgomery cites research that the minor relationships in our lives - with our neighbors, the mailman, that guy who works in his garden on the next block - affect our happiness almost as much. The reason for this is that they are human connections without some of the stress of our closest relationships, and they create a tapestry of humanity around us. Not surprisingly, this makes us happier. Urban design that puts us into contact with our neighbors regularly can build up this important resource.

Finally, as noted in the quote above, the noise, danger, and just ugliness created by fast cars and car-centric development hurt conviviality. Montgomery cites very telling research about how traffic and noise affect the way we interact and treat one another. In one example, residents on a low-traffic street in San Francisco reported having many more connections with their neighbors than a high-traffic street, even though the streets were the same in every other regard. In my own city, I thought of the examples of one-way streets and the freeway cutting through the heart of downtown: the noise of fast cars just keeps people away (or in their own cars).

The great thing about Happy City is that, despite laying out all the obstacles to the happy, green, flourishing, ideal city, Montgomery concludes with optimism. He shares stories of people changing their lives for the better at the individual level, the neighborhood level, and the city level, proving that in spite of unfriendly zoning, decades of dispersal, and some naysayers who deny that sprawl makes our lives worse, there is something each of us can do. 

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Of Skywalks and Self-Denial

Ah, skywalks. The classic example of reasonable, seemingly logical urban development thinking with ugly unforeseen consequences.  Spokane, Cincinnati, Detroit, and Minneapolis all fell prey to the skywalk craze of the 1960s and 1970s, and Spokane's is the second largest skywalk network in the country.

The idea behind skywalks was not without merit: "Hey, our city has cold winters. It also has businesses that want to attract customers, customers who could just as easily drive to a climate-controlled suburban mall instead. Humans don't like to be cold. Therefore, they will be more likely to shop in our city center if they don't have to walk outside. As a plus, skywalks look spacey and futuristic."

Unfortunately, all this weather-protected walking and shopping took people off the sidewalks, lured customers away from street-level businesses, and left cities looking lifeless and, well, kind of '70s.

Last week, I was downtown around lunchtime with my kids, on a cold but dry, not unpleasant January day. We were in the downtown core, where there are many office buildings and restaurants, and presumably many able-bodied office workers who enjoy eating food at midday. I was therefore shocked by the number of business people or other professionals I saw on the sidewalk - that is to say, not a soul. We were practically alone. The few people out could, I suppose, be called "loiterers," for lack of a more precise classification: people who are absolutely deserving of respect, dignity, and support, but whose presence you don't want exclusively characterizing your streetscape, if your goal is to attract tourists, shoppers, workers, and businesses.

We continued with our errands, and as we were preparing to leave the library to catch the bus home, I realized that though separated by several blocks, the library and the bus plaza are completely connected by skywalk. I usually avoid skywalks as a rule, but in my defense, it was cold, I hadn't really packed my full arsenal of warm layers as we were mostly traveling via bus, and besides, my 3-year-old pointed to the skywalk and said, "Let's go that way," so away we went.

Yes, unsurprisingly, it was warm. And yes, we did pass some indoor shops we wouldn't have otherwise seen. But I was surprised to find there all of the professionals missing from the sidewalks. And not just professionals, but other parents with kids, shoppers, possibly tourists - in short, everyone who was so conspicuously absent from the streetscape below.

Cities need a healthy mix of people on the sidewalks. People doing nothing more extravagant than walking and looking around promote a feeling of safety (and actual safety), a sense of community and interest, and boost the city's image. With a majority of people hidden upstairs in climate-controlled tubes, the city feels the way I found it: cold, dead, creepy, desolate. On the other hand, even in the coldest winters, people bundled up and hurrying from shop to shop or from work to restaurant on the sidewalks can make the same city feel inviting, vibrant, active, and safe.

Because most people are not willingly going to avoid the skywalks simply to do their part for the good of the city, the best thing to be done is to tear the suckers down. Cities like Cincinnati and Baltimore are doing precisely that. While I don't expect Spokane to do anything so bold anytime soon, my own skywalk days are over. As much as I hate cold (and I do, particularly in February), I plan to deal with the cold and do my part, outside, where I belong. The streetscape needs us.