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Walk This Way: Reclaiming America for Pedestrians

In a car-dominated landscape, Dan Burden wants to refashion towns into places where kids bike to school and parents walk to work.

January 05, 2003|Matt Crenson | Associated Press Writer

EAST AURORA, N.Y. — 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.

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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.

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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.

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