Mama, What is a Pedestrian?

Both of my sons were born in New York City, and my younger child came home from the hospital on the M96 crosstown bus. By the time my kindergartener was 18 months old, he easily did a 1/2 mile to the farmers' market on foot. We gave away our bulky stroller when he was 3.

In New York, everyone is a pedestrian. 

Then, we moved to a rural area. Now we grow our own tomatoes, cucumbers, blackberries and garlic. The peas are climbing up the side of the barn, and my kids have their own tree fort. But we buy milk, and travel to school, in the car. 

On today's trip into town, my 8 year-old saw a sign reading Pedestrians 500 Feet. And that's when he asked me: "Mama, what does pedestrian mean?" As I processed the question, it occured to me that the word's very definition was one of those little end-of-civilization moments. 

"Pedestrian" is from the Latin "Pedestr-" which literally means to go "on foot." But the other meaning of the word is the equally common, pejorative term meaning "commonplace, ordinary." In classical times, only commoners went on foot. Fancy people went on horseback. And now they have imported cars, with or without leather seats.

When I was growing up in 1970's Michigan, this was the case. We were a struggling one car family, and while my father was at work, my mother and I did the grocery shopping in our little neighborhood store, hauling our goods home in my little red wagon. In high school, it was blaringly obvious that the other riders on my city bus route were either students, like me, or the disadvantaged. In a car culture, only losers walk or take the bus.

In many places, that's still true. But now things are shifting in an uncomfortable way, and in light of the obesity epidemic, walking is now offered as a simple health cure. Magazines like Prevention  and Forbes run "Best Cities for Walking!" lists in their glossy pages. And the cities that make those lists, not surprisingly, are expensive ones like Cambridge, Seattle, Ann Arbor, and San Francisco. 

My friend Elaine has lately been on a three year quest to move her family out of suburban Pennsylvania, and back into a real city. The moment she decided she needed to get out of there was the moment new "Walking Prohibited" signs were posted alongside the roads in her area. 

The CDC studied the question of how many kids walk to school, finding that in 1969 42% of kids walked or biked to school, and by 2001 that number was down to 16%. And distance was usually the problem. In 1969 87% of the kids who lived a mile or less away walked or biked, and in 2001 that had fallen to 63%, meaning that many children who were near enough were still walking or biking.

We took our first family trip to Disney World this year. The first part of the park you see inside the entry gate is "Main Street," where dozens of adorable store fronts await you with their Mickey trinkets. A child walking near me gasped "It's like a little city!" 

Oh, the novelty of walking past those tidy doors. And behind us, on the other end of the monorail, our rental cars sat in one of the cheerily named sections of one of the biggest parking lots in central Florida.