Urban walking and the risks of wexting

Calgary Herald, April 29, 2017: About ten years ago, a study by the British Council determined that people in cities around the world were walking up to 30 per cent faster than they did back in the ’90s.

The researchers found the biggest speed demons in Singapore, where pedestrians clocked in at 10.55 seconds to walk 60 feet, about 18 metres. The slowest amblers, by far, were in Blantyre, Malawi where folks took a leisurely 31.60 seconds to saunter from here to there. The only Canadian city on the list was Ottawa. It ranked 20 of 32 with people taking a perfectly reasonable 13.72 seconds to get from A to the Centre Block.

The researchers gathered their data by taking to the streets in the different cities and secretly timing how fast people walked a stretch of pavement. In each city, they taped 70 adults—35 men and 35 women—who were walking alone, not struggling with any shopping bags and not talking on their phones.

I can’t find a follow up study to see what unencumbered urban amblers pace in at now. Perhaps that’s because researchers can’t find 70 people in any given city who walk 18 metres without their phones in their hands. Walking while texting—‘wexting’—is taking over city streets. And along with it come the inevitable collisions and the occasional calamity of someone being hit by a train while updating their Facebook status.

“Thirteen per cent of teenagers who were hit or almost hit by a car didn’t look properly while crossing,” writes Conrad Earnest, an exercise scientist at Texas A&M University. “If in-attentional blindness is a part of the reason, this is likely exacerbated by smartphones, where one can listen to music, text, email and even watch videos, relatively all at the same time.”

To take a look at the some of the risks behind texting and walking, Earnest (then a professor at the University of Bath), set up a street-like obstacle course. People went through the course just walking like in the olden days; while walking and texting and finally; while walking, texting and doing a math problem in their heads.

“Distracted people slowed their walking speed, took more steps in their approach to common obstacles, and increased the height of their step to go up steps and over curbs,” Earnest reports. Apparently, wexters know they have to slow down and exaggerate their movements for their own safety.

Bully for them.

Slowpokes on Snapchat can be a problem for the rest of us, particularly when someone stops dead in the middle of the sidewalk over the latest dog face filter on their phone. That kind of thing drives Earnest crazy. In fact, he was inspired to set up his obstacle course after going for a walk and being “totally frustrated by the drunken weaving-about of texters.”

Texting lanes are popping up on city sidewalks and university hallways.  For a while, London tried shrouding lamp posts in padding to protect people when they walked into them. At least one European city has installed lights on the pavement to try to reduce pedestrians running into each other while glued to their phones.

Seasoned urban walkers remain vigilant, striding purposefully with elbows up and phones stashed away. But maybe we should all welcome the hazard of people walking and texting; take it as an invitation to slow down and take in the joy of strolling in the city.

Urban planners are finding that we walk more if there are sidewalks and trees on both sides of the street, and those little boulevards that separate the sidewalk from the street. We walk more in inner city neighbourhoods that are laid out on a grid than in the curvilinear suburbs with their streets like ‘loops and lollipops.’ We walk more when there is less garbage and more people around.  And, shocker, we walk more when there are nearby places to go, like shops, cafes or podiatrists.

Cities like Calgary are using the growing body of knowledge about “walkability” to develop strategies to encourage more walking—it’s a double win because walking is good for the pedestrian’s mental and physical health and more pedestrians are good for the city’s health, or vibrancy.

“We plan for pedestrians as a form of transportation but we also talk about our main streets as a place for people to linger,” says Jen Malzer, a transportation engineer and pedway and mobility strategist with the City of Calgary. “Sometimes in a lower speed environment, like Kensington, the sidewalks are historically constrained and that can force you to slow down and interact with people, which is really the beauty of being a pedestrian.”

Some swap that beauty for the pretty pics on their Instagram. Others, including perhaps those moseying along the busy streets of Blantyre, Malawi, keep their eyes up to soak up the art of walking in the city.

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