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Walking to do

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, February 1, 2007

When Dean Kamen unveiled his Segway Personal Transporter in December 2001, much of the grandiose hype and bloated expectations surrounding the invention focused on how the new device would revolutionize the way modern cities are built. Pretty lofty goal, sure, but no one accuses Kamen of downplaying his work. When the device was officially unveiled, people discovered that it was a motorized scooter. A pretty sweet scooter that can balance itself, true, but still … a scooter.

The Segway is a really nifty device, true. It’s fast, clean, easy to charge and use, and it almost erases pollution when compared to a car. For the average American city-dweller, the machine really serves all your daily needs, provided it can reach the workplace and nearby stores. But Kamen’s ballyhooed invention underestimates the sterling and durable method of transportation that humankind has possessed ever since evolution propped us upright: walking.

The human gait is a fine thing when you think about it. You just push your legs forward and go, one foot in front of the other. As the steps add up, feet turn into yards, yards into miles, and miles into … many miles. There are no emissions besides your exhaling breath, and none of the noise that clogs up otherwise serene cities. The footprint of the average human person is decidedly less than an automobile, and even the Segway can’t best a person for space-savings. The speed may not be quite as great as a Segway or car, but it gets the job done. The energy supply lasts a lot longer than a charge on Kamen’s brainchild, and fuel is remarkably cheaper than what Ford’s offspring demands (even if you prefer fine dining). All those years of planning and inventing, and here the whole time we’ve been sitting – or standing – on the most efficient vehicle of all. Until our descendants colonize the moon and start scooting around in hover cars, it’s the best means of travel we’ve got.

Kamen’s vision did bring to mind a regrettable aspect of modern life: we design our cities and neighborhoods around transportation, and that transportation is always a car. Older cities were built with narrower streets, where buildings hunched closer together, and they gave you an easier walking experience. In our time, however, everything modern is subject to where a car can go. This means our more state-of-the-art cities possess a great deal of convenience for us, but that convenience comes at a price. Cars are the de facto method of traveling, even within cities and suburbs, and we’re left with little choice. Just think about getting around in South Bend and Mishawaka. Walking around campus or close to it does not trouble us, but try walking to Meijer and carrying back your purchases. Sure, you can do it, but it’s a pain.

That pain, however, may be worth it. Living in a city may not provide the healthiest lifestyle in many aspects, but it beats suburban sprawl when it comes to weight and daily exercise. A national study published in American Journal of Preventative Medicine last December found that teenagers who grow up in suburban neighborhoods walk far less in their daily routines – relying instead on a car to get to and from school, work and friends’ houses – and therefore are far more prone to obesity. They are, in fact, more than twice as likely to be overweight when compared to city teenagers.

I’m studying in Rome this semester, and as my first long-term city living situation, it has definitely changed my habits. When you’re here, it’s true, there’s a whole lot of walking to do. Just going from our residence to school and back and nowhere else probably adds up to four or five miles every day. The plight of suburban dwellers seems much more credible to me, because I now understand how little walking I used to do. Once you get used to walking everywhere, though, the convenience of it really becomes apparent. You’re mobile, independent and environmentally-friendly.

Most European cities are built on the same premise – they existed long before cars, and the largest thing the streets had to accommodate was an occasional horse and carriage. Here, walking is your best option for getting around. Modern cities have tons of advantages – better city plumbing and waste disposal, more suitable land, easier transportation of goods – but they force you to hop in your car whenever you need a carton of milk or a loaf of bread.

Fighting our handicapping modern city design isn’t an easy task. Residential areas don’t spring up overnight, so we can’t expect our neighborhoods to change their layout that quickly. We can, however, choose to walk to the store or work whenever we can. In the process, you can save energy, get a workout, create less noise and just enjoy your town.

You could buy a Segway, but why waste the money? Use what you already have, and try walking. Your grandchildren living in redesigned moon-cities may thank you one day.

James Dechant is a junior studying abroad in Rome this semester. Questions, complaints, and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.