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America's unused legs

By: staff

Date: 2000-04-25

Nobody walks anywhere in America nowadays, laments travel writer Bill Bryson in "Notes from a Big Country," a series of columns Bryson penned for the Mail on Sunday's Night & Day magazine and later compiled into a book of the same name.

Bryson relates how, shortly after he and his family returned to New Hampshire after living in Britain, their next door neighbors drove round for dinner.

"I was astounded (I recall asking them jokingly if they used a light aircraft to get to the supermarket, which simply drew blank looks and the mental scratching of my name from all future invitations lists), but I have since come to realize that there was nothing especially odd in their driving less than a couple of hundred feet to visit us," Bryson relates.

Bryson, who lives in Hanover, says it's a small, typical New England college town, pleasant, sedate, and compact. It's an agreeable, easy place to stroll, and nearly everyone lives within a level five-minute walk of the shops; but virtually no one walks to them.

"People have become so habituated to using the car for everything that it would never occur to them to unfurl their legs and see what they can do," Bryson says.

"Sometimes it's almost ludicrous," he adds.

"The other day I was in a little nearby town called Etna waiting to bring home one of my children from a piano lesson when a car stopped outside the local post office and a man about my age popped out and dashed inside (and left the motor running-something else that exercises me inordinately). He was inside for three or four minutes, then came out, got in the car and drove exactly 16 feet (I had nothing better to do so I paced it off) to the general store next door, and popped in again, engine still running.

"And the thing is, this man looked really fit. I'm sure he jogs extravagant distances and plays squash and does all kinds of exuberantly healthful things, but I am just as sure he drives to each of these undertakings."

Citing research done at the University of California, Bryson says a study of the nation's walking habits concluded that 85 per cent of people in the U.S. are "essentially" sedentary and 35 per cent are "totally" sedentary. The average American walks less than 75 miles a year-about 1.4 miles a week, barely 350 yards a day.

"According to a concerned and faintly horrified recent editorial in the Boston Globe, the United States spends less than 1 per cent of its $25 billion-a-year roads budget on facilities for pedestrians. Actually, I'm surprised it's that much. Go to any suburb developed in the last 30 years-and there are thousands to choose from-and you will not find a pavement anywhere. Often you won't find a single pedestrian crossing."

In another column, entitled "The Risk Factor," Bryson comments on the fact that 40 per cent of Americans still don't use a seatbelt, "which I find simply amazing because it costs nothing to buckle up and clearly has the potential to save you from exiting through the windscreen like Superman.

"Even more remarkable, since a spate of recent newspaper reports about young children being killed by airbags in minor crashes, people have been rushing to get their airbags disconnected. Never mind that in every instance the children were killed because they were sitting on the front seat, where they should not have been in the first place, and in nearly all cases weren't wearing seatbelts.

"Airbags save thousands of lives, yet many people are having them disabled on the bizarre assumption that they present a danger."

In fairness to Americans, would like to point out that many other industrialized countries are pursuing the same route to sedentary nirvana. They just have a little further to go. Many British commuters traveling into central London each day from the suburbs, for example, prefer to drive and add to the city's already dire congestion than take the excellent, speedy, and frequent commuter trains. One excuse, apparently, is they begrudge paying the (ridiculously cheap) parking provided at the stations.

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