Terrain.org Essays.
View Terrain.org Blog.





The Perilous Career of a Footpath

by Howard Mansfield


Sign: No pedestriansThe pedestrian who walks through the planning manuals is a hunted beast. He or she is given seven seconds to cross the street in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices—or less. It is accepted practice to shorten the crossing time to four seconds. The manual assumes that you’ll step out smartly at four feet a second. But if you’re an older citizen crossing a six-lane road, you may find yourself stranded in the last lane as the light changes, a candidate to become a hood ornament. You have used up the “Available Green Time.” You have gone overtime on the allotted “Pedestrian Clearance Time.” You are in “conflict” with traffic. You are that worst thing: a “flow interruption.”

The imperiled state of the walker is revealed in the approved standard signs: Pedestrians on the planet of Uniform Traffic Control have no feet. On Warning Sign W11-12 the pedestrian has no feet and no hands. But the farmer on his tractor on W11-5 gets a jaunty wide-brimmed hat and his tractor has big gnarly tires. Things are no better on the recreational signs, like RL-100 Trail (Hiking): walking stick, backpack, legs, but no feet. RS-010, Skater (Ice) is also problematic. Legs and blades. No feet! The horse depicted in RL-110, Trail (Horse), has hooves. Bikes and All-Terrain Vehicles have wheels. Why can’t walkers have feet?

The signs are more truthful than intended. Walkers are quarantined. “Pedestrian control” is one of the objectives of the manual and other key texts like the Highway Capacity Manual. It’s not out of malice, but concern. Traffic engineers want to keep pedestrians and cars apart.

The pedestrian is restricted to narrow corridors. Federal programs designed to encourage walking, like Safe Routes to School, are all about building safe corridors, an approach that is not unlike those wildlife crossing tunnels constructed for salamanders. The walker is treated as an endangered species. Traffic engineers design “pedestrian refuges”—median strips to shelter the stranded walker. Advocates of “walkability” plead that “we’re all pedestrians.” (We’re born without cars.) These well-intended federal programs and advocates want to build what is in essence a highway system for pedestrians, paving to match paving. In the arms race of paving, pedestrians and bicyclists are playing catch up. All of this is upside down. Cars should be limited, not people. But we have chosen otherwise.

Sign: No skatingThere is no hiding from the paving arms race, just as there is no place safe from the nuclear arms race. Paving is the prevailing ethos. I know this first hand. For more years than I care to admit, I chaired a committee in our town—a planning committee. Those two dreary words when placed next to each other create a multiplier effect of dread. It’s like placing the words “root” and “canal” next to each other.

Our committee was in charge of making changes and not making changes. We were supposed to fix everything and leave things just as they were. That’s contradictory, of course, but so were the “facts on the ground” as the generals say. Our village, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, is a classic New England small town. The handsome Main Street leads to the town common, a perfectly paced procession that gives us our library, store, café, inn, meetinghouse, post office, and town offices. Our Main Street is a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places. But Main Street is also a state road, a two-lane major route. A state road running through an historic working landscape is a bad fit; it’s like ice wedged into a granite boulder. Given enough winters, ice will conquer granite.

A modern road is a landscape with its own rules—the rules in the manuals to maximize traffic flow. Each detail is mandated by law, regulation, or the religion of traffic engineering. But the town has its own landscape, one shaped less by regulations than by foot and hoof, by once-common ways of building. We have meandering dirt “cow paths” instead of sidewalks. We have grassy edges and mud puddles instead of curbs and paved shoulders. We have an old “soft” landscape.

The hardscape of the road—of all us rushing everywhere—chafes against the soft, pre-automobile landscape, and once it does we call in the victors: the traffic engineers. Their solution is to harden the landscape. This, in sum, is what our plans and meetings had been all about: how to fix the old townscape without “hardening” it. How could we keep it a place where, on a summer’s day, children swimming in the pond across from the common could walk barefoot on the path under the trees to the village market to get a popsicle? How could we make sure that cars stop for people three and four feet tall, with towels draped like capes over their shoulders?

While that’s not the language of planning, it should be the goal. Somewhere in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, in the Highway Capacity Manual, in all the federal and state laws, it should say, A village, a neighborhood, is a place for people, not machines. People first. Otherwise, as Lewis Mumford warned in 1957, we are planning our life to fit the automobile, which shows “that we have no life that is worth living.”

Sign: Bicycles keep left, pedestrians keep rightStreets were once public space. The streets of 19th century downtowns were a tangle of people, horses, oxen, wagons, carts, carriages, and trolleys. All that has been cleared for the monoculture traffic jam of cars and busses. The pedestrian is banned from the street, except for those seven seconds at the corner. If he steps anywhere else in the sacred precinct, in many cities he can be fined for jaywalking.

When the first motor car enthusiasts began to wedge into this mess, they cursed the pedestrian and the horse-drawn cart. Why can’t they get out of the way? Pedestrians were blamed for accidents. This became the official line. “The pedestrian was a most serious hindrance,” said a traffic engineer in the 1920s. “The pedestrian is the most difficult ‘problem child’ of the accident prevention movement,” said one traffic safety consultant in 1950. He is his “own worst enemy” and “he must change his walking habits or become a casualty,” the consultant said. This attitude has persisted: In 2007 the U.S. Secretary of Transportation complained about having to devote 1.5 percent of her budget to pedestrians and bicycles, which “are really not transportation.”

Out in the countryside, people did not yield to the first cars. The first British law restricted the speed of electric cars to four miles per hour and required that someone run ahead with a red flag. In the United States, farmers treated the early motorists to frontier justice. In one Minnesota town the locals plowed up the roads. Near Sacramento, California, they dug ditches across the roads, trapping 13 cars. In parts of Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands they threw rocks at passing cars. Woodrow Wilson shared the sentiment. He said that he understood those who shot hit-and-run drivers.

But we know how this story turns out. Historically, Americans have been obsessed with transportation. “If Americans agreed in any opinion, they were united in wishing for roads,” Henry Adams wrote of the early republic. Americans were in a fever to build roads, bridges, canals, and railroads. Turnpikes were pushed over hills and through swamps. A mania for canals gave way to an even bigger mania for railroads. European visitors were astonished to find railroads everywhere, pushing up steeper hills and twisting around tighter turns than were allowed back home. In just 15 years the Americans had built the largest network of railroads in the world. “This country is completely cut up with Railroad Tracks, Telegraphs, Canals,” Andrew Carnegie wrote home to a cousin in Scotland. “Everything around us is in motion.”

The first motorists banded together to mark routes and to lobby for good roads. State highway departments were established; the first traffic signs and signals were designed. The road as we know it began to take shape. The first Manual on Uniform Traffic Code Devices appeared in 1935 as a mimeographed booklet of two-dozen pages. (Today it’s more than 750.) The federal government tentatively entered the road-building business in the 1920s, and took the lead with President Eisenhower’s massive interstate highway program starting in 1956, the largest public works project in history. The “pursuit of happiness,” as it turns out, requires a lot of driving.

We have a few programs now to build sidewalks, but we also need paths. We love soft surfaces, but the life of the “soft” in the era of legislation and liability is endangered. We love the fall and rise of the hoof-made, foot-made roads. When we lose the swoops and dips, we’re a little further from the earth. We lose that quality of intimate adjustment, step by step, foot to earth, year after year. We need a Good Paths movement.

From the Maryland State Highway Administration Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guidelines, Chapter 9, Section 9.2, Meandering Sidewalks:

Meandering sidewalks (sidewalks that weave back and forth within the right-of-way) are generally discouraged. While they may seem visually interesting, pedestrians prefer a direct, non-circuitous route.

Sign: Path narrowsThe word “path” occurs about 75 times in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, but never referring to a meandering dirt walk. It occurs in phrases such as “path of conflicting vehicles,” and “road users’ path.” The Highway Capacity Manual is about a world far removed from the foot and hoof (though it does treat bicycles as their own category of traffic flow management). There are no prescriptions or rules for building or restoring or maintaining a “cow path.”

Our planning committee looked around, visiting other small towns which were restoring their Main Streets. We saw green commons cut through with black rivers of asphalt. We saw wide cement sidewalks out of proportion to the old houses, as if the sidewalks had been airlifted in from a city. And we did see some hopeful signs, towns that used brick and granite pavers, and towns that had used crushed stone, but neither was appropriate for a country village in our part of New Hampshire. Laying down a brick walk in our village would be like playing dress up.

The traffic engineers we had hired knew their surveying and their designs for road drainage, but when we talked about how people in town wanted us to preserve the paths, they were at a loss. (When we had shown our engineer our design to break up a small run of granite curbing with grass, he was upset. “Other engineers are going to see this,” he said.)

Not only did people in our town want to keep the old paths, they wanted one of them cleared in winter. In the past, the paths were left to slumber under the snow and we all walked in the street. There was getting to be too much traffic for that now. We needed a surface to stand up to a snowblower, and one that wouldn’t puddle or ice over. We were left on our own to keep our antique, while meeting the demands of a New England winter. As the months went by, we realized that we needed something that doesn’t exist: preservation engineering. We needed designs and rules that respect the vitality of old landscapes. We needed engineers who could see the wisdom in the mismatching crockery of ordinary paths.

Fortunately our road agent, who is the director of the town’s highway department and serves on our committee, is open to new ideas. He trolled the web looking for solutions. He came up with two prospects. One used a system of support like plastic egg cartons to lock in the gravel, which made a grass lot strong enough to park a fire engine on. Or so the company’s website claimed. It was almost too good to be true, but I wanted to believe. The other prospect was a polymer which had been used with some success by the National Park Service. The gravel is mixed with the polymer to harden the surface. The path looks old, but it is a fake—a new old path. The old soft path would be wearing a coat of armor. Better living through chemistry.

We took the idea to the town for a vote. At Town Meeting, the voters approved building a section of walk, 100 feet long, to test out the two hybrid surfaces. We were now preservation engineers.

Sign: State Law: Yield to pedestrians within crosswalkIs building a hard/soft, new/old path a good thing? What we had engineered was certainly better than paving the path into oblivion, and it does represent the conflicting wishes of my neighbors in town.

They loved the country spirit of the village, the “ragged edges” where the grass was worn into dirt. Don’t make the town too cute, too pretty, they said. Don’t tart it up like so many made-over towns that strut their stuff for tourists. But the facts on the ground were, once again, contradictory. We pledge allegiance to the softer qualities of a rural landscape, but we want speed and equality of access. We want to get in our cars and go like hell. We want to buy the same bag of chips anywhere. We want anything we desire shipped to us overnight. This opens the books of regulations and mandates, the approved, standardized designs. Our bag of chips comes attached to an ugly landscape of signs and signals, turn lanes, asphalt and cement.

Sprawl is planned. Calling it sprawl lets us off the hook, as if sprawl, like a hurricane, was beyond our control. But it took thousands of hours of planning and public meetings to conjure these mistakes. Sprawl is us.

On a plan, a cow path isn’t much. It’s one line among many lines. Night after night, we studied the plan of Main Street rolled out on the table before us. The Sheldon house built in 1781, the Whitcomb house built in 1813, these are rectangles. The path is a line crowded into other lines, old maples are circles, and lilacs are outlined like grounded clouds amid the survey numbers and property lines. The plan excelled in marking the bounds of property, sorting out who owns what, the town and state right of ways. Divisions and edges showed up much better than unities.

A “40-Scale” plan, in which one inch equals 40 feet, is a way of seeing the world. It is a tool, and like all tools it transforms what it touches. A door built with a hand plane is different than a door built with a machine planer. A plan makes it easy to move around lines, sketch a change at the corner of the common. But what you can’t see is how plucking this line here affects all the lines in the little flat-earth kingdom that you rule. Even two or three “little changes” knock into each other like pool balls until clack clack clack you are someplace else. Unintended consequences.

A path is more than a line on a plan. It is full of subtle adaptations; it is different at each point, shouldering close to the old houses, a few steps from the porch of the inn, accompanied by white-picket fences, narrowing to a follow-the-leader path, widening to a cement sidewalk in front of the café and market. Each spot is unique. If we take our eyes off the path and look around, we can begin see what a path really is. A path lives in its relationship to everything it passes. A path is not one thing, but a relationship among things. It is a pattern, says architect Christopher Alexander.

Patterns are key to understanding what is ailing our landscape. There is an order, a language, for the way a good street is created. There are recognizable parts that make up a good village townscape. Each part—a fence, a lilac, a walkway, a wall, a front door, a roof—works with the other parts to create a place that could only be that place in the whole world. Good patterns, says Alexander, make a place “comfortable, ordinary and profound.”

This is the brilliant insight of Alexander’s A Pattern Language, a yellow brick of a book that presents 253 patterns. There are large patterns for country towns, neighborhood boundaries, and ring roads. And smaller patterns for street cafés, pedestrian streets, porches, fruit trees, compost, alcoves, fireplaces, children’s secret play-spaces, dancing in the street. This book can be read in any order—just as a walk across a city or town can take you many places. And it can be read as a long poem in praise of the delights of ordinary places. It’s stirring, and like a first encounter with Bach, it opens a view to a better self, a better place. Alexander makes you feel like you can go out and build something beautiful.

Sign: No pedestriansA Pattern Language shows us that the relationships between things matter—and that there are no things, really, but relationships. There isn’t a chair, but the relationship of the parts that make up a chair. There isn’t a house, but a series of patterns—a pattern language that creates a house. And that house is a part of other patterns creating a yard, a street, a village.

There is great power in understanding patterns. It was not just a path we were seeking to preserve, but the pattern that makes up the village. It’s the language of the village.

Our test of the walkway surfaces worked. We selected one of the hybrid surfaces, went several more rounds with engineers fending off asphalt, and built our path. With great care the construction crew followed the old crooked route. It lacked the rude interruption of new construction; it looked wobbly, like it had been there for years. This is just one small thing—one pattern that upholds other patterns, one small thing that makes life better.

Our longing for the old “soft” landscape is more than nostalgia. We have a hunger for the older values because they are closer to the earth. We bend toward this as a plant to light. We want to live in houses and towns that are “comfortable, ordinary, and profound.” An old worn path can be a lifeline thrown to us in the shipwreck of planning manuals, zoning codes, traffic engineers, and planning committees. But this is the era of the seven-second pedestrian. We hurry along, not stopping to ask ourselves: Why do we engineer our own exile, banishing the things we love?


Howard Mansfield is the author of six books about preservation and history, including In the Memory House, The Bones of the Earth, and The Same Ax, Twice: Restoration and Renewal in a Throwaway Age. "The Perilous Career of a Footpath" is adapted from his forthcoming book, Dwelling in Possibility (Down East, 2013).
View Comments   :   Post Comment   :   Print   :   Blog   :   Next   


Post Comment

Name (required):

Email (required but not displayed):

Comment (required):

Enter Security Code Shown Below:


Christopher Alexander (PatternLanguage.com)

Eisenhower Interstate Highway System

Highway Capacity Manual

Lewis Mumford (Wikipedia)

Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices

Maryland State Highway Administration Bicycle and Pedestrian Design Guidelines

National Center for Safe Routes to School

A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander


Home : Terrain.org. Terrain.org: A Journal of the Built & Natural Environments.