Bringing Rome to the Suburbs

Kathryn Ossing

What if American towns were as walkable as European ones? I spent a year studying abroad in Rome, Italy, without ever setting foot in a car, and I had the richest experience and most wonderful adventures I’ve ever had in my life.  I ate as much as I wanted, and I walked it all off every day. I never had to sit in traffic, find a parking spot, or pay for gas. I got to know the ladies at the bakery, the waiters at my favorite restaurants, and even a few tour guides. From my hotel I could walk to my school, ancient monuments, churches, bars, grocery stores, shops, markets, pharmacies, parks, etc. I could go anywhere I wanted to, whenever I wanted. I controlled when I got there, and my pace was never limited by speed limits or speed bumps or cop cars. And when I went to a bar with friends, no one had to be the designated driver, and there was no drunk driving. We walked.

Ever since I returned to the United States, I’ve been looking for a city as walkable as Rome.  None that I’ve seen compare. So I made it my goal in life to improve the walkability of our American towns, to take back the rights of pedestrian travel that have been sidelined again and again since the advent of the automobile. I’ve done my research, and discovered that several tools already exist to help us understand and improve the walkability of the places we love.

New Urbanism

New Urbanism is a movement founded by people that want to transform auto-centric communities into walkable cities and towns. It has a free “Smart Code” that will help any town or city in this endeavor.

Walkscore for Catonsville

Walk Score

If you want to live in a walkable city, or are curious as to how walkable your city is, walkscore.com is a great tool for understanding which grocery stores, shops, restaurants, bars, etc. are within walking distance, and what public transportation options you have (see above example for Catonsville).

Starting at home

I’ve decided my first step in making the world more walkable should be my hometown of Catonsville, Maryland. Catonsville is a small suburban town just 15 minutes west of Baltimore City. I did a little research and discovered it developed as a trade route that people took from the flour mill in the next town over to the city.

ossing_1899
Catonsville in 1899

Shops cropped up on the street, and soon wealthy Baltimoreans began building summer homes in the area to escape the city’s heat, and the shops multiplied. Owners lived in the second story of their shops, and walked to their neighbors’ shops to buy necessities. Catonsville became a small village. 

Catonsville in 1910
Catonsville in 1910

But after WWII, people flocked to the suburbs from the city, President Eisenhower helped the nation build highways, and the era of the car began.  It was for “convenience” that grocery stores moved to the edges of town, so that people had to drive to buy food. It was “safer” to separate businesses from residences, so that people could no longer live where they worked, but had to commute by car. It soon became the American dream to own a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence and a two car garage.

Catonsville in 1930
Catonsville in 1930

Walkable Catonsville was transformed into an auto-centric suburb. Shops that used to front the street edge, with doors that opened onto the sidewalk for easy pedestrian access were replaced by buildings separated from the street by acres of parking spaces.  Roads were widened, and historic buildings replaced with gas stations, drive thrus, and parking lots.

Catonsville today
Catonsville today

Driving

It is in the nature of a driver to want to go fast. Cars were built for moving us from one place to another quickly. But driving fast around pedestrians results in fatal accidents. Driving slowly around pedestrians (1-20mph) results in fewer accidents and fewer fatal accidents. Highways should be for cars, and cities and towns should be for pedestrians. 

Street Characteristics that make drivers feel that speeding is safe:

  • Lack of people
  • Lack of other cars
  • One way streets (because there is no opposing traffic)
  • Wide lanes
  • An increase in the number of lanes
  • Good visibility (being able to see around corners without having to slow down much)
  • Straight streets

Historic flower shop on Frederick Road
This historic flower shop on Frederick Road
is a good mixed use building that fronts
the street edge.

If these things make people feel that speeding is safe, why are we making roads in residential and urban areas, places where pedestrians abound, more conducive to speeding? Roads are being widened, the number of lanes increased, and new buildings are set back from the street so that drivers can fly around corners without having to slow see if someone is coming. Traffic engineers are trained to move traffic. They design streets for fast car movement, but then they put in traffic lights, stop signs, speed bumps and speed limits, and expect drivers to slow down. Every street sign is a failure in city planning. It’s little wonder our streets today are covered in them. What then do we do to bring reclaim the streets for pedestrians?

Street Characteristics that make pedestrians feel safe:

  • Narrow streets
  • Other people
  • Buildings that front the street
  • Sidewalks
  • Trees
  • Parked Cars (a barrier of steel between pedestrians and traffic)
  • Colonnades and arcades (or on a suburban house, a porch)
  • Brick paving (to further differentiate the pedestrian domain from that of the car)
  • Mixed use buildings (residences and offices above shops, providing more eyes on the street)
  • Bumpouts at crosswalks (to decrease the distance pedestrians must cross in front of cars)

Catonsville tomorrow
Catonsville as it could be

Restoring Walkability

This happened to my town. Downtown Catonsville’s Frederick Road was paved with asphalt, the lanes were widened, and drive thrus and parking lots abound. If the above characteristics were implemented, Catonsville would be well on its way to becoming a walkable community once more.