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Walking to work in a town built for cars

This week, I walked to work.

Yes, in fact I do have a perfectly good car. I walked because I'm over us being "Floriduh" and the butt of a nation's jokes. (So a Greek priest and a Marine walk into a parking garage …)

No, not that one. What got me walking was news of a report ranking the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area the second-most dangerous metro area in America for pedestrians, behind Orlando. The report said more than 43,000 people in the United States were killed walking in the last decade — the biggest danger being in places that "fail to make smart infrastructure investments that make roads safer for everyone."

This didn't just happen. Two years ago when we were called least walkable in another survey, I tested this by walking to work, arriving largely unscathed. The truth is, I cheated. I started from Hyde Park, one of the city's most walkable neighborhoods, because highway construction between my own urban neighborhood and downtown Tampa made that route, well, unwalkable.

So I walked. When you walk in a city unused to walkers — kids on school buses peering down like you are some kind of bug — sidewalks are few and precious, even those that end so suddenly you're sure you're being punked by the public works guys. Commuters fly by at your elbow even on quiet residential streets.

But you see things. I saw our version of seasons changing: a Christmas tree (already!) in a front window next to a house with pumpkins on the porch. A flock of city pigeons scattered overhead as a hawk cruised through, something I do not spot driving in traffic.

At a light notorious for red-light runners, I looked both ways, up, down and sideways, because some drivers think "Yield To Pedestrians" is mere suggestion. It wasn't until a quieter intersection that a woman with an SUV turning did not see me crossing — legally and everything! though this would have been little comfort in a crash — braked and smiled apologetically. I walked on.

I crossed a bridge high over the Hillsborough River, one where a University of Tampa student was killed in a robbery while walking at night not long ago, one teenagers cross daily to get to high school. The sidewalk up there seemed thin as a tightrope, the rail too low and the cars too close, but at the top, the view was as amazing as any from a downtown skyscraper. How is it I cross this bridge every day and don't notice a city waking up? Then a bus flew by, its tailwind making me think how it might feel to topple into the waters below. I walked on.

I considered ear buds — every single cyclist and walker I passed had them, but decided it was best to be on my game, that SUV lady ultimately proving my point.

I did get time to think, to smell the cut grass of a soccer field, to see homeless people strewn across benches by the water and wonder how soon they would be run off. I got an art critic's view of spray-painted graffiti that rowing teams traditionally leave on bridges and seawalls — school names, edgier stuff like "Rowin' Dirty," in all, a fine display of public art.

Funny — I have tromped around New York City without worry — maybe because there, people and cars have worked it out, coexisting just so everyone makes it through the day.

How was my walk? Interesting.

But yes, I got a ride home.

Walking to work in a town built for cars 11/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, November 13, 2009 10:52pm]
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