« Return to this article

for people who care about the West

The street hierarchy

"She's got legs / She knows how to use them."


Walking in Phoenix is an act of shame. You don't walk here because you reject car culture and all its dirty geopolitical and environmental implications. You walk because you can't afford not to.

Everyone who sees you using the sidewalk knows this  -- drivers stopped at the light, folks cutting you off in the crosswalk, fellow passengers on the bus. So you avert your eyes, keep your head down, try to ignore the drivers lined up beside you in rush hour traffic. A few proud contrarians can hold their heads up and strut in the face of social judgment. Maybe they've saved half the money for a used Kia Rio and know that soon, with enough overtime at Costco and no more library fines for late DVDs, the privilege of sitting idle on congested surface roads in 100 degree heat will be theirs. Me? I walk fast, and carry extra AA batteries for my Walkman.

I grew up here, learned to drive here, got my first car and first tickets, caused my first accidents and visited my first drive-in theater with an indifferent date here. It was in Phoenix that a car first hit me; nothing major, just a bent BMX wheel and bloody shin. Ironically, life in the desert introduced me to hiking, but it was Phoenix that psychologically transformed ordinary walking into an unavoidable chore.

I harbor no resentments, not even against Henry Ford. The far-reaching effects of Henry's machine are well documented: Cars encourage cities to spread out, not up; sprawling metroplexes contribute to American obesity; by fracturing habitat, roads reduce biodiversity; and the ensuing culture of convenience births such urban inanities as prescription pickup windows and drive-thru postal drop boxes. But what most amazes me is the way the car has alienated urbanites  -- especially Phoenicians  -- from humanity's oldest transportation technology: our legs.

In their song "Walking in L.A," the New Wave band Missing Persons could just as easily have been singing about Phoenix. Singer Dale Bozzio spends her verses trying to figure out why she saw someone on the street. Was it a jogger? she wonders. A homeless man, or someone who just ran out of gas? "One thing's for sure," she sings, that guy "isn't starring in the movies."

'Cause he's walkin' in L.A.

Walkin' in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.

It's unsettling to sing along to lines like "You won't see a kid walking home from school." But what Bozzio brilliantly observed in 1982 was simply the fallout of a virulent urban design system called "the street hierarchy."

Popularized by German urban planner Ludwig Hilberseimer, the street hierarchy is a technique for separating high-speed through traffic from residential areas. Designers based entire "instant cities" like Panorama City and Lakewood, Calif., on the concept, and it has remained the standard model of suburban construction since the 1960s. The hierarchy eliminates straight-line connections between major roads by embedding residences within blocks of smaller curving roads and cul-de-sacs, with limited points of entry. This restricts through traffic to the arterial, boundary roads  -- those roads outside quiet blocks  -- and nestles local traffic and pedestrians inside the neighborhood. Unfortunately, the hierarchy kills the linear connectivity of the old-fashioned grid; that, coupled with suburban developments' use of walls to dampen noise and create privacy, creates a longer, more circuitous route for pedestrians hoping to walk to the coffee shop. There are sidewalks still, usually leading to market. But, as New Urbanist writers like James Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere) and Andres Duany (Suburban Nation) observe, even though that market may sit a quarter mile from home as the pigeon flies, the drainage ditches, cul-de-sacs and walls in between turn it into a mile-plus walk.

We Phoenicians became car-dependent because of space. Desert is cheap, largely unloved, and there's lots of it. In defiance of water's natural distribution, desert cities like Phoenix and El Paso expand to fill their edges rather than condense around their middles. Where "high-density" is the battle cry of progressive cities like Boulder, Colo., and Minneapolis, Minn., neither geography nor urban design offer sufficient pressure to encourage dense, inward growth in the Sunbelt. Accordingly, driving in Phoenix has become part of its residents' default settings. When it's hot here, you sweat; when you need to go somewhere, you drive. It's only when you move or vacation elsewhere  -- San Francisco, say, or Manhattan  -- that you realize there are other ways to navigate a city. I received my reprogramming in Portland, Ore.

One of the nation's liberal hotspots, Portland is also one of its most walkable communities. Oregon's controversial urban-growth boundaries, established as law in 1973, limit how far a city can extend into surrounding rural and forest lands. This metro gastric-bypass surgery has focused new development within the metro area, often in the form of tall residential loft and condo buildings instead of standard street-hierarchy suburbs. In addition to keeping swaths of farmland under cultivation rather than concrete, the boundary created a dense, easily navigated downtown core of mixed, street-level commercial and residential developments, and a stellar light-rail and bus system.

Portlanders love public transportation the way New Yorkers love diners. In a city that prides itself on being a pain in the establishment's ass, having no car has become de rigueur, pedestrianism a badge of indie honor, legs more than just something to shave, stroke or sculpt on the Stairmaster. Despite its very real environmental and political ramifications, using your legs to walk and pedal in Portland has reached the status of fashion accessory, an expression of identity accentuating your character-ensemble, much like the "No Blood for Oil" bumper stickers that, without a bumper, people stick on their bikes. As a Portland trademark, resistance is one of the city's strongest attractions for the "creative class." Cheap rent, abundant bookstores, a progressive, intellectual, dissident culture  -- that's what drew me here in 2000.

Between light rail, buses and my apartment's proximity to work, I soon discovered I could afford to ditch my car. It just took my mind a while to adjust. Missing trains; dragging cumbersome lamps and thrift-store nightstands home on crowded buses; learning to balance an umbrella on my shoulder while carrying groceries in the rain  -- I struggled during those first months. Bushmen trek for miles with water-filled pots on their heads, but carrying groceries in drizzle seemed too much for me. I needed to deprogram from a lifetime of cul-de-sacs, shed my old Phoenix attitude toward walking.

Hoofing it leaves you feeling naked, searching constantly for that giant, four-wheeled handbag whose weight you no longer feel tugging on your person. What pedestrians sacrifice, really, are options. What if you need that book that's been in your trunk for three months? That stiff, oil-splattered peacoat you keep near the jack in case it snows? Like backcountry campers, foot commuters have to pack everything the day might require: snacks, computer, the shirt you intend to return at TJ Maxx. All the crap you normally keep spread across the floorboards now accompanies you. You have become a kind of turtle. Venturing into the world lugging only what your spine and sore shoulders can support reveals not only the extent of your pitiful machine addiction, but the weakened state it's left you in. You're the junkie just off methadone: shaky, your nerves unbuffered, learning to operate without a crutch. It's a fragile readjustment, and you suffer the growing pains of a shifting paradigm: irritability, confusion, and the nearly overwhelming desire to resume the old ways. The familiar comforts call: oh, that warm euphoric rush! Not to mention all that trunk space! My god, you think one cold rainy day, I can't do this. Convenience is my birthright, walking a return to the primordial ooze. Given the choice, would Hugh Hefner go back to his early workaholic days just to regain his pre-Viagra stamina? Faulkner to his mailroom job just to live in an Oxford where neighbors didn't begrudge him for writing their lives? But somehow, rather than racing to a car dealership, you get used to it. Walking becomes the new default, a form of blinking.

Soon, you quit missing that car, or at least you miss it only while walking on rainy nights, when the paper Whole Foods bag gets so soggy that carrots poke holes in the bottom and you have to cradle the tattered flap to keep jars from falling out. Seeing cars whiz past, likely with dry groceries in their trunks, you know their drivers also drive to and from the jobs that they work to pay for the privilege of driving to and from work. And it's then that the car you sold, the car you called "Big Red" or "Anna Banana" (it was yellow) becomes "that stupid car," just a snakeskin shed as the residue of a new, emerging you. How did you ever waste so much time and money on that luxury? you think. Like an open relationship, it seemed a good idea at the time. When you look at smiling couples loading groceries into Subaru Foresters in the Co-op lot, you see dinosaurs standing unknowingly in the path of a comet, petro-dactyls soon to be eliminated by Darwin's undiscovered theory of subcultural selection: Survival of the Coolest, baby. Then you walk the mile home in the rain.

When you overhear strangers mention "emissions tests," you can barely remember what those stations look like  -- some sort of archways with tubes and technicians? But you remember changing a flat on the Interstate's narrow shoulder during a freezing December rush hour, how the draft from passing semis blew the snot right from your nose, how thankful you were the rest of you didn't blow away with it. You remember how buying new tires made for an impoverished Christmas. But that's something for Phoenicians to worry about. You need only remember they raised bus fair 10 cents last Tuesday.

You, the newly liberated walker  -- the saved, hallelujah!  -- develop a new math. Calculating your commute, you factor in the walk and all the stops the bus might make to load handi-capable riders on that slow-moving forklift thing. When it snows, you factor in how carefully you'll step crossing slush. All this means that you have to stop trying to do so many things at once.

See, you used to multitask feverishly, because, able to go 80 mph, you figured you could make up on the road the time you spent enjoying the steamy shower. You habitually overextended yourself because your car closed the gap. So you waited until the last minute to iron your shirt, you brewed coffee while burning CDs and showering, and checked your e-mail one last time before leaving at 8:20 for the 8:00 party. Cars fed procrastination, enabled overachievement, or, as your Dad and last three girlfriends called it, your poor planning. But now the old 30-minute commute takes upwards of 60. It's healthy, you think, the exercise, fresh air, sea change. If your ecology minor taught you anything, it's that if you're not changing, you're dying, though that could've been some New Age quote or a lyric from a Bob Dylan song.

I'll admit: Walking is often a laborious inconvenience. Even after the initial adjustment, I arrived late to work a couple times a month, every month, most of my Portland years. I knew pedestrianism was the right thing in my new home, and I had sufficient reasons to hate my car. With the constant repair costs, the way my CV boot always broke after I returned home impoverished from vacation, or my engine quit holding oil while crossing the Mojave Desert, resentment was inevitable. But pedestrian life has its own set of hurdles.

Portland is rife with Pedestrian Rage. Cyclists in skin-tight jeans and black hoodies tap the windows of SUVs blocking their path. Soggy skateboarders yell at cars that fail to yield properly, playing punk-rock policeman. A silent finger is a common sight. Unfortunately, self-entitlement and youthful urban rebellion have so blurred the line between actual legal right and wrong that to enter the (yelling) dialogue carries a sort of hipster-shame. Look, yelling says, another angsty art-school dropout taking personal frustrations out on anonymous drivers. That's not to say many drivers don't deserve it. People who operate their machines irresponsibly stand to kill or maim those not safely shelled within their own aluminum carapace.

Car-related accidents annually result in some 3 million injuries and 42,000 deaths in the U.S. For Americans under 45, wrecks are the leading cause of death. Not surprisingly, residents of low-density suburban zones face a greater risk; the street hierarchy wasn't developed with our legs in mind. But living is its own punishment: those same suburban residents spend a greater portion of their annual income on transportation costs than residents of high-density areas. Still, that burning thread of social commentary (change-the-world-one-yelling-match-at-a-time) has become so deeply stirred into the mix that to critique driver etiquette and car culture in Portland is to join a global battle for a way of life. "It's us against them!" goes the implicit war cry. "No cars in downtown! Create a growth boundary for motorized vehicles!" Yelling alone is lazy activism. But even when yelling is justified, it's easy to feel too embarrassed to utter a word.

I can't lie: I was a hothead during my Oregon years, yelling and flipping people off, lecturing drivers whose windows were closed. Standard scene: I'm returning to work, my shoes squeaking from saturation, jeans stuck like Saran Wrap to my shivering thighs, when some right-turning jackass comes inching at my ankles while I try to cross the street. "You want me to walk faster?" I think. But we walkers know the deal: For those five to 15 seconds, that is our crosswalk. So you take your stand, smack in the middle of the street. The crosswalk is more than a bridge between sidewalks, it's the intersection of modern technology and a simian propulsion system, of deficient urban planning and corporate oil's greed, of the rushed American lifestyle and countercultural angst, all simmering like Mount St. Helens between those fading white lines. That moment when the bumper closes in on your ankle, its owner impatiently waiting for the chance to squeeze through before the next damn pedestrian arrives, that's the moment when society's ugly auto-dependence laps against the hull of a philosophical Valdez. So, like a Confederate soldier hunkering in a trench, I would turn to face my enemy. "This is as fast as I go," I'd holler, "slow down." As the rain splashed my furrowed brow, I always had to accept that a raised middle finger was the most powerful threat my pedestrian arsenal could muster, because with the slightest tap of the pedal, "the enemy" could end my life. I'd cross the street. He'd turn. I'd take my red-faced frustrations to a coffee shop for an organic herbal tea and do some yogic breathing to calm down.

I yelled a lot, frequently because I was right. Other times, I lashed out because, as I can see now, I just missed my truck.

Last July, I moved back to Phoenix. Six years gone and I'm back behind the wheel.

Things are much too spread out here to solely bus, bike or walk. I live in Cave Creek, a now-suburban town on the metro area's northernmost edge, so if I want to escape my yard and corner shopping plazas and venture into the theoretical heart of the action, I need wheels. I didn't want a car. I liked the extra cash pedestrianism afforded, liked the enviro-karma that oil independence imparted. Not having to pay attention to accident reports, detours and closures is great. But again life whispered: too bad.

My Grandma, 88, voluntarily retired from driving and gave me her 1995 Toyota Camry. While not as low on mileage as those mythical creampuffs little old ladies drive only on Sundays, the Camry had only logged 45,000 miles. Eight months later, the total's 60,000.

I drive everywhere. Twenty-five miles one way to work, 45 minutes back to my cul-de-sac to sleep. And frankly, despite the high costs, I love being lazy again. But when I climb stairs, I notice that my calves have lost much of the strength they accrued from those fancy-free years. A noticeable ring of fat has collected around my once-lean middle. Every week, I pile Trader Joe's groceries in the passenger seat  -- all that eco soap and organic salad mix that makes its fossil fuel transport somehow seem less egregious. I spend some $50 a week on gas, but I get to use my floorboard as a mobile office to store books, papers and envelopes, my trunk for hiking boots and backpacking gear. Sometimes  -- after completing what might be a two-hour commute by bus  -- I kiss my steering wheel after pulling into my driveway at 10 p.m., exhausted. The other day, when I had to leave the car at Big O to get new tires, the walk to a nearby coffee shop felt as bad as I remembered it.

I walked south on Cave Creek Road, then under the 101 Freeway overpass with my head down, careful not to meet the eyes of drivers lined up at the crosswalk waiting for the light. From under squinted lids, I scanned the intersection, anxious for my chance to escape into the comforting we-all-have-cars-here camaraderie of the coffee shop. Then it happened. A face aimed out a rolled down window. A green-eyed, attractive brunette. Her laser gaze met my fumbling glance and the painful implication of her stare left a rumbling in my gut. I'd have felt less ashamed if I had a Styrofoam cup to wave. "Spare change?" I wanted to say, to laugh and make myself feel better. Wanted to sing, "I got legs, but don't want to use them." Instead, my neck snapped left and I looked away.

Thankfully, it took only an hour to put on those new tires.

I can't stand to walk around here.