25 things vanishing in America, part 2: Sidewalks

I understand that we have a lot of problems that the government needs to focus on in order to improve our economy, but I wonder if instead of focusing on building roads, perhaps we should be building more sidewalks.

I spent a lot of my childhood in Middletown, Ohio, which was then and still is a very pleasant place, even if Forbes late last year annoyingly said that its one of the top 10 fastest dying towns in America. There are a lot of reasons I liked growing up in Middletown, circa the 1970s and '80s, but certainly one of its underrated charms was that it had a lot of sidewalks. And it still does.

Frequently, as a kid, I used to beg my mother to let me walk to my grandmother's house -- probably a 45 minute walk one way -- and one day she finally let me. I think I was 9 or 10, and other than occasionally crossing the street, I was able to travel the entire journey via sidewalk. My mother may have worried about threatening strangers or a sudden rainstorm, but I know she didn't fret that I might be run over by a car.

My oldest daughter is seven and my youngest five, and I can't imagine letting either of them, whether alone or together, walk several miles anywhere from our house now--or in a few years, and I probably won't be crazy about the idea when they hit their teenage years. There are no sidewalks in our subdivision, built in the 1990s, and virtually none in our area for miles.

There are no bicycle paths along the roads either. If you're going to walk, jog or ride your bicycle alongside our narrow countryside roads, on some level, you're risking your life.

And I know that my neighborhood isn't alone. It's hard to find statistics on this sort of thing, but you get around enough, you start to notice. Once you get out of the downtown areas of the city, the towns, the villages, the suburbs and subdivisions -- especially anywhere that's been built up in the last 20 years -- they frequently lack sidewalks.

So think about it: if we started a lot of sidewalk projects, we'd create jobs, plenty of them, and we might just have people walking, and kids riding bicycles, a lot more than they currently are. Suddenly, our shoe and bicycle industry is booming, creating jobs. Meanwhile, people are healthier -- maybe obesity rates come down -- and maybe our health care system becomes a little less broken. Because suddenly cars are being driven a little less, the environment improves, and maybe we have more money to spend on other things besides gas and maintenance, and (some) portions of the economy are boosted.

Sure, I know that I'm asking a lot of sidewalks and building more isn't the answer to all of our country's problems, but I do think they'd help the nation more than we realize. Besides, if nothing else, America should do it as a favor to the late and great Shel Silverstein, author of Where the Sidewalk Ends. His book is a classic, but it's getting a little dated.

Geoff Williams is a freelance journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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