Walk This Way: Reclaiming America for Pedestrians
Dan Burden is playing in traffic.
Burden, 58, scurries into the busy main street of this western New York village, unfurling a metal tape measure as he goes. He gets a quick measurement of the distance from the curb to the double-yellow line, then retreats to the sidewalk.
“Twenty-two feet,” he says. “Plenty of room for a bike lane.”
Burden is a guest, invited by a group of citizens seeking his advice on how to make East Aurora a better place to walk and bicycle.
That’s no mean feat. Americans use automobiles for more than 90% of their daily trips, traveling more than 9,000 miles a year by car on average, compared to less than 4,000 four decades ago. The average American driver spends almost 18 1/2 days a year behind the wheel.
The result of this automotive addiction: A world where children are sometimes bused 300 feet to school because they can’t safely cross eight-lane suburban boulevards. Two-hour commutes on clogged highways. Quaint main streets forsaken for windowless hulks set in acres of asphalt.
“America is out of sync with its values,” Burden tells 100 people who have gathered for a slide presentation in a school cafeteria. “We say we’re for kids. We say we’re for safety. We say we’re for families. And we build this ... “
A slide comes up of a woman pushing a stroller along the shoulder of a busy road, a toddler with her walking inches from traffic.
Children and the elderly suffer most when the automobile conquers a town, Burden says. In a car-dominated landscape, those who can’t or won’t drive suffer impaired mobility, recreation, health and peace of mind.
The damage can be repaired, Burden says. Our towns and cities can be refashioned into places where children bike to school and their parents walk to work, where picking up a gallon of milk doesn’t have to burn a pint of gasoline.
“There are the places that were built and intended to be built as bedroom communities, and you can’t find a town center, you can’t find a real store, you can’t find anything. But you don’t have to choose to live there,” Burden says. “What I have learned is where a lot of America has been destroyed, so much of it is waiting to be recrafted and perfected.”
Burden is seven years into a decade-long roadshow dedicated to spreading the word, a postmodern Johnny Appleseed who plants ideas. In 1996 he set up Walkable Communities Inc., a nonprofit business that offers planning, traffic management and community design.
He travels 350 days a year -- ironically, often by automobile -- and vows to keep moving until 2006. So far he has visited 1,300 communities.
This isn’t the first time Burden has hit the road in the name of non-motorized transportation. In 1971, he and his wife, Lys, embarked on Hemistour, a National Geographic-sponsored bicycle expedition from Alaska to Argentina. They rode with one other couple, Greg and June Siple.
The Burdens had to drop out 18 months into the trip when Dan came down with hepatitis in southern Mexico. But by then Dan Burden and Greg Siple had conceived another grand adventure, a mass transcontinental ride to celebrate America’s bicentennial. More than 4,000 people participated in what organizers called Bikecentennial.
Burden settled down some after that, going to work for the federal Department of Transportation and then as Florida’s bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. But he credits a 1980 vacation to Australia for helping him realize that highways and shopping malls have led America astray.
“I started to walk the streets and wander through the villages and began to realize that Australia, every town I was in, was the America I remembered as a child,” Burden says.
He’s playing in traffic again.
This time Burden has positioned 20 East Aurora residents in the street as if they were traffic cones. He has lined them up in an arc that sweeps forward from the front-left fender of a parked car before curving to the curb at the end of the block. This, he explains, is a curb extension.
Widening the sidewalk at the end of a block prevents turning cars from cutting the corner and forces them to slow down. It also gives crossing pedestrians a vantage point that is unobstructed by parked cars and shortens the distance they have to walk across the intersection.
The knowledge Burden imparts is not innovative -- any traffic engineer knows about curb extensions. What makes Burden special is how he spreads the word to nonprofessionals who share his vision for a pedestrian-friendly America.
“You need to know those kinds of terms to be able to speak,” says Bruce Davidson, president of Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth.
Davidson wants to learn the lingo because in a few years the New York State Department of Transportation plans to tear up East Aurora’s main street.
“We want to make sure that the project works in our favor, that there’s no widening, that pedestrians come first and foremost,” says Libby Weberg, a member of Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth.
Because he’s late, Burden has consented to being driven to his next appointment. At a four-way stop, he sees a child pedaling a bicycle across the intersection.
“When I see that I know there is something very good about a community,” Burden says.
If western New York hadn’t snoozed through the most recent period of national prosperity, East Aurora might already be a bedroom community to Buffalo, about 20 miles to the northwest. The west end of town already has its share of fast-food restaurants, drive-through banks and a shopping plaza.
But the village of 6,673 also has a real Main Street, anchored by a genuine five-and-dime that sells Necco Wafers, Lemon Heads and two dozen other candies that haven’t been seen in most places for years.
“It’s the kind of store we wish never went away,” Burden says.
Thanks to Paul Bandrowski, a developer who began investing here about three years ago, Main Street also has a movie theater -- one screen, 650 seats, mahogany ticket booth and real butter on the popcorn. Next door is Patina, a New American restaurant in a restored 19th century home and another of Bandrowski’s properties.
“The things you’ve got, other people wish they had,” Burden tells the 100 people assembled in the middle-school cafeteria on a Thursday evening.
He’s showing slides of pedestrian-friendly towns and cities, including some he helped design -- and some nightmares. Thrown into the mix are a few shots of East Aurora that Burden took with his digital camera that afternoon.
This community has already made critical mistakes, Burden tells the residents. Building the new high school a mile outside of town means more kids will ride the bus or drive instead of walking. The location also forces kids who have no other transportation to walk home from after-school activities along a busy road with no sidewalk.
East Aurora’s post office has moved out of the town center too.
“They’ve stolen your post office,” Burden says. “You need to get your post office back.”
Though the citizens did fight the move, he encourages them to keep pushing the Postal Service.
He ends the session by asking the people what they would like to have in their town. Bike paths, they say, and better snow removal, an ice rink, a department store, a skateboard park.
He’s standing in a dreary gravel lot behind a drugstore, but Burden sees possibilities. There could be a cafe back here in a landscaped courtyard. The drugstore building could have another story or two above it, with apartments overlooking the street in front and the courtyard behind.
“This could be some of your higher-priced housing in town,” he tells his hosts.
In Burden’s ideal community, traffic rolls along Main Street at a sedate 15 to 20 mph. The library, post office and town hall sit in an attractive downtown with parking on the street and, if necessary, in lots behind the buildings.
“Cities work best if we keep them compact,” Burden says.
There’s housing in town, and most people live within walking distance of what Burden calls a “100% place” -- a public square where people can gather. Nobody lives more than an eighth of a mile from a park, and anywhere somebody might want to sit there is a bench.
Bike lanes and walking paths link the town’s major attractions to one another and to neighborhoods. The tree-lined streets are no wider than they need to be, and there are enough crosswalks that pedestrians don’t have to go more than 150 feet out of their way to cross.
East Aurora could be like that, Burden says, but only if the people who live there take some initiative. They need to persuade transportation officials to preserve Main Street as a focal point, not a thoroughfare. And they need to encourage national chains to lay aside their plans for drive-through megastores and think outside the big box.
“A new wave of thinking” has swept over western New York in the last four or five years, says Ken Kuminski, the state transportation department engineer who is overseeing the East Aurora project and has already worked with Burden in the nearby town of Hamburg. Increasingly, town officials want traffic slowed down instead of sped up. They want crosswalks and speed bumps, not left-turn lanes and bypasses.
It was a lot simpler to do things the old way, Kuminski says, when the sole concern was moving cars from point A to point B as quickly as possible.
It’s Saturday morning at the Aurora Theater, and Burden is delivering the finale of his three-day visit -- telling the people who invited him here what they can do to make their town a better place.
“If you do nothing,” he says, “then what you get is going to haunt you for the next 50 years.”
A woman stands and addresses the audience. She says her name is Dorothy Clough, and she has lived on Oakwood Avenue for about 35 years. Now that she and her husband are too old to care for their big house, Clough fears having to leave East Aurora for a smaller home in a town that has relegated walking to shopping mall corridors and health-club treadmills.
“I want to stay a part of the action,” she says. “You’ve given me hope.”