The Waiting Room: My (Un)Walkable City -The Toast

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Kelly Davio’s previous Waiting Room columns for The Butter can be found here.


Some weeks ago, I was late for a meeting and waiting at a crosswalk, impatient with the incredibly long red light. Just as the signal finally turned my way and I began my slow progresses from curb to street, a Typical Seattle Biker—white man, brown beard, tight shorts, pointy helmet—came rolling up the curb cut in front of me. He then did what Typical Seattle Bikers do: that unnamable thing of jerking the bike’s handlebars back and forth and bouncing the wheel about. (I’ve asked around, and apparently the goal of the exercise is to “work on balancing” by heaving around in this way.)

I tried to skirt around him, but I’m not all that great with my own balance. The fact that one of my feet doesn’t entirely lift up makes me veer off to the right at times, and in trying to out-maneuver a guy bouncing about on a moving heap of metal, I ended up somewhere between the light post and the local weekly paper’s news stand. By now, the red hand was flashing. There was no way I was making the light, and I was unamused.

“Look,” I told the guy, “I’m just trying to cross the street!”

He gave me an outraged look in return. “And I’m just trying to ride my bike on the sidewalk!”

Never mind that riding a bike is not what a sidewalk is for. Never mind the fact that I was obviously having difficulty getting where I was going and could have used a little space. This is just life in the United States’ 6th “most walkable” city. This is a place where, if somebody isn’t mowing you down with a bike, there’s bound to be construction that forces you into the road, or tree roots and jagged concrete that can trip even the most conscientious pedestrian. Add mobility issues to the mix and you’ve got a walkable city that excludes those who can’t walk.

Because I move at a glacial pace, the fact that I can walk somewhere doesn’t mean that it’s remotely worth my while to do so—it might take me two, maybe three times longer than it takes an average, able-bodied person to cover the same amount of ground. Muscular weakness means that, even if I get where I’m going, I won’t necessarily be able to get back. And when walking increases my risk of falling, as it often does, that’s downright dangerous. This, of course, is me speaking as a person who’s able to walk. Those who need scooters, wheelchairs, or other assistive devices to get around have an even more impressive gauntlet to run every day.

So when I hear people extol the virtues of walking everywhere and the environmental benefits of “going carless” (think of the carbon emissions! The air quality!) I smile amenably while I imagine shooting lasers out of my eyeballs. Now, I’m not a total jerk when it comes to the environment—I don’t go around using plastic shopping bags that I then stuff down the blowholes of orcas off the coast. I don’t dump pesticides into the watershed or toss garbage off local bridges. I recycle. I have been known to compost. I plant little flowers for the bees. But I refuse to believe that I owe it to the polar bears to struggle along on foot everywhere I have to go.

My mobility issues are by no means an isolated case. There are 19 million of us in the U.S.—that’s over 10% of the population—who report mobility limitations. Women are disproportionally affected, as are African Americans and older adults.

When you look up and down a city street at everybody who’s enjoying a walkable neighborhood, where’s that one person in every ten who’s struggling to get where she’s going? You might not see her—she might well be staying home. The more walking takes a central role in our community life, the more isolated those of us with limitations become. We don’t want to expose ourselves to unnecessary risks by forging ahead on foot, and the more social judgment that comes with driving, the worse we feel about ourselves when we take our wheels out. So we stay in. At least, I do.

It’s tempting to look at a city like mine and see only gestures in the right environmental direction. Seattle, after all, was among the first cities to attempt “Car-Free Days” and “Bicycle Sundays” that banned cars from many of our city streets. Our green-painted bike lanes look nifty. But increasingly fewer places to park cars (and hence fewer ADA-accessible parking spaces), diminishing budgets for reliable and safe mass transit, and ever-higher density living with stairs everywhere (scratch those expensive elevators)—to me, that doesn’t represent progress. It represents a way to make neighborhoods more enjoyable for the young and healthy while squeezing out the aging and disabled. A city doesn’t warrant the term “community” if one of every ten members can’t get around.

I’m all for making cities more ecologically friendly, but until inclusivity is just as important to us as sustainability, please—I’m begging here—can we keep the bikes off the sidewalk?

Kelly Davio is the co-publisher and poetry editor of Tahoma Literary Review and author of the poetry collection Burn This House (Red Hen Press, 2013). She is the former managing editor of The Los Angeles Review and is a reviewer for Women’s Review of Books. Her work has appeared in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Rumpus, and others. She earned her MFA in poetry from Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, and is a freelance writer in the Seattle area.

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