It's Not That You Can't Walk in Dallas. It's That We Don't Think You Should.

Former Dallas Observer journalist and current Dallas Morning News digitalist Robert Wilonsky was on Channel 5 just now talking about a new report ranking Dallas in the bottom five of 30 American metro areas for "walkability." The problem is that we still have a lot of people here who will think that's a good thing.

Not me. I have been for walkability ever since I figured out it didn't mean how long it takes to walk from one side of town to the other, which I don't want to do. I now know it means something else, although I'm still now sure we're all settled on what.

The report, called "Foot Traffic Ahead," by the George Washington University School of Business, kind of walks around a definition of walkability, telling sort of a story about it instead: "Walkable urban development," it says, "is characterized by much higher density and a mix of diverse real estate types, connected to surrounding areas via multiple transportation options, such as bus and rail, bike routes, and motor vehicles."

In other words, uh ... some kind of city? But what makes it a walkable city, in particular? The report clears its throat and tries again: "For those living or visiting a walkable urban place, everyday destinations, such as home, work, school, stores, and restaurants, are within walking distance."

Eh. I don't believe it. I had a conversation once with the Andres brothers, urban re-developers who planted the seeds for what is becoming one of the city's great walkable neighborhoods along Henderson Avenue between Ross and Central Expressway -- a strip of bars, restaurants and coffee shops backed up by deep blocks of mid to high-rent apartment buildings. I asked them about that "live/work neighborhood" concept where you can walk to your place of employment from your crib. They kind of shrugged and said, "Eh."

Their research, borne out by experience in the market, led them to believe that, in terms of walking, young people in particular don't care where they work. That they can do in the car on Monday when they're sober. What they really want is a live/drink neighborhood where they can hang out and cruise without getting a D.U.I., like they could on that summer semester in Spain. Now that's worth paying for.

Elliot Kaiser, also a former Dallas Observeronian and one of the brightest young persons I know, is back in town temporarily but for a while on family business, having left for now his adoptive and beloved new hometown of New Orleans. He told me the thing he misses most about the Big Easy is "being able to walk out my door in any direction and find something to do, including a 24-hour bar with good jazz."

Walkable, I think, means having something within walking distance that's fun to walk to. Not work! Play! What make a city walkable, I would think, is having some fun reason for walking around in it.

One of my first and most memorable impressions upon moving to Dallas 115 years ago involved jay-walking. A cop downtown in highly polished motorcycle boots up to his knees came running at me blowing on a whistle with his eyes bugged and his cheeks popped out like Dizzy Gillespie -- such a startling apparition that I was just about to applaud when I figured out he was mad at me. Very mad. He didn't have to ask if I was new in town. He asked if people back where I came from walked around in the street like they owned the place. Stumped at first, I thought about it and said yes. In Detroit the only way a jay-walker could attract the attention of the police would have been by dragging a dead person with him by one arm. The cop was truly angry, and I had the feeling I escaped a thrashing only by some unnamed and undeserved mercy.

The street, the public space back then, was a terrible and fragile place in Dallas, a zone of dangerous exposure where things could happen, a battleground kept under control only by the most ferocious exertions of cops in highly polished motorcycle boots constantly on the look-out for pedophiles, pedants, peddlers, pedalers and pedestrians - anyone who had not achieved sufficiently decent station in life to be able to afford an automobile.

Not all that much has changed in 115 years. An English colleague, also here at the Observer, amused us recently with anecdotes about his early foolhardy attempts to walk on the street in a part of North Dallas where walkers are more rarely sighted than coyotes. He quickly realized that those streets were not places where walking was merely awkward. They were places where walking was despised. We assured him his bones would bleach on the shoulder of the road out there before anyone bothered to scoop him up.

Wilonsky in his TV interview cites several good reasons why Dallas has always been so unwalkable -- sidewalks too narrow, things spread too far apart -- all valid, all part of the picture but all of them maybe more symptomatic than causal. I always think of one of Wilonsky's colleagues at his new place of employment, a columnist at the Morning News who once wrote that a major highway built on the banks of the Trinity River would be the perfect tribute to the river's natural beauty because people really only want to look at a river from a car anyway.

There it is -- the city's heart and soul. Is walking in the public space comfortable and fun, or is it terrible, frightening and the sort of thing one would do only if one were the sort of person who had failed to own a car? Once we figure all that out, the actual walking will take care of itself, one way or the other. Not before.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze