Ann Arbor is a city made for walking. And I try my best to take full advantage of that — or at least I thought I did. I walk to class; I walk to buy groceries; I walk to the library; I walk just to walk; I walk because I never learned to drive. But I soon realized I wasn’t walking right.
According to the Michigan Economic Council, Ann Arbor is the most pedestrian friendly city in the state. Even more, Walk Friendly Communities, a national program committed to promoting walkable cities in the United States, has designated Ann Arbor as a Gold-Level community for its commitment to crossing amenities and traffic-calming programs, as well as a host of other initiatives.
And though we may not think much of it, we’re lucky. With such a walkable city, Ann Arborites reap significant economic, health and environmental benefits. More walking means less money spent on gas and more foot traffic for local businesses. More walking means less driving and, therefore, cleaner air. More walking means increased physical activity and all the accompanying benefits: healthier hearts, stronger bones and clearer minds.
It sounds great and all, but as I walked to class, listening to my iPod and responding to the occasional text, it didn’t feel so great. Sure, I felt supernaturally calm as I listened to Simon and Garfunkel. And I can’t complain that while looking down to text I could avoid awkward eye-contact with well-meaning men’s Glee Club members handing out fliers in the Diag — I’m slammed with work and so sorry I can’t make it to your show!
And while contemplating why Ann Arbor — despite the statistics, well-paved sidewalks and lovely landscaping — doesn’t feel like this great walking city, I realized: I was the problem.
All this texting and listening to my iPod were undermining the benefits of this walkable town.
To echo thoughtful moms everywhere, it just wasn’t safe. With my headphones in, I couldn’t hear the cars approaching as I crossed Hill Street. When I looked down to text, I wasn’t only distracted, but I also missed the light and was nearly hit. In New York City, the texting-while-walking epidemic has become so widespread and dangerous that the Department of Transportation has started stenciling “Look!” on the crosswalks of hectic intersections in hopes of rerouting the distracted gazes.
So, I decided to quit — cold turkey. I wouldn’t listen to music or text. I decided to walk with my head held high and eyes forward. And I started to notice things. Did you know that there’s an anchor next to Dennison? Or that there is a bas-relief on the water fountain that sits on the corner of State Street and North University Avenue?
Despite my best efforts, it still didn’t feel as expected. Everyone else continued to listen to music and to text. And I soon realized, with our ear buds in and our fingers typing, it isn’t just safety that we lose, but also human interaction.
You rob yourself of keen, unique observations and memories: You don’t overhear a construction worker tell his co-workers that “When you go out to breakfast with the boss, you just don’t order the steak and eggs. It’s etiquette, man.” You don’t see the dog that looks exactly like her owner either.
Even more, you miss out on potentially meaningful social interactions: It means not stopping to say “hi” to the kid who lived down the hall from you freshmen year. It means not taking the time to chat with your friend and then deciding to go to Dominick’s for the rest of the afternoon.
These interactions — this spontaneity — are valuable to anyone in any city, but even more to University students who live on and around a campus that can feel overwhelming and vast.
So, let’s all take out our ear buds and put those phones away, too. Because as the great urban thinker and writer Jane Jacobs once said, “Lowly, unpurposeful and random as they may appear, sidewalk contacts are the small change from which a city’s wealth of public life may grow.” On that note, I’ll see you at Dominick’s later?
Zoe Stahl can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.