If Dan Burden were more recognizable and just a bit more fashionable he'd undoubtedly be the star of his own Nike commercial. Confidently striding up Main Street U.S.A. in his new Nike's, a faithful crowd of followers falling in behind him, Burden could be the pied piper of walking. Actually, this scene is not unlike the one that plays out wherever he travels. As founder and executive director of Florida-based Walkable Communities, Inc., Burden spends his days walking the streets of America, advising politicians and civic leaders on how to make their communities more pedestrian and cyclist friendly. It's a challenging and daunting task to get everyone to slow down in our motorist-dominated world, but the rewards are tangible and often surprising.
You Can't Get There From Here
Growing up in the Midwest in the 1950s Burden enjoyed the simplicity of small town America—a time when mom-and-pop stores were part of the landscape and everyone knew their neighbors. His hometown of Missoula, Montana, was so self-contained that he didn't even own a car until he was 35 years old. “I swore I would never live in a place where you couldn't go by foot. Then, of course, I had the stupidity to move to Florida,” he says, laughing.
Florida provided what he describes as his dream job—state bicycle coordinator—and his enthusiasm was self-evident. In his first year Burden's work became so well known that he began receiving invitations from around the world to consult on cycling projects—a measure of recognition that was not lost on his superiors. “They were proud that someone from the Florida Department of Transportation was being asked to figure out how to make bicycling work in China,” he remembers.
In 1981 the Australian government invited Burden for a visit that turned out to be his epiphany. Up until that fateful trip he wasn't conscious of how America was slowly becoming a slave to the automobile and that our dependence on cars was negatively impacting communities. “When I got there it was like déjà vu all over again. Every town, street, block and neighborhood was what I remembered from the fifties. Everywhere you walked the streets were nice, there were beautiful parks and the homes were built beautifully,” he recalls. As soon as Burden returned to Florida he made an autocratic decision, changing his job title to bicycle and pedestrian coordinator, a position he would hold for 15 years.
A decade-and-a-half later Burden decided to strike out on his own. “I was looking at my calendar one day and realized I was going to be out of state more than I was going to be in Florida. I went to my boss and said, ‘I don't feel right working for the state and being gone half the time.’” On Labor Day of 1996 Burden began operating Walkable Communities full time, spending as much as 350 days a year on the road. “I gave one presentation and then the calls started coming in. I went from town to town to town and I've been on the road ever since,” he says.
Walk Don't Run
The first thing Burden does when he arrives in a new town is to walk around and talk with the locals. This is followed by a formal presentation for elected leaders and those interested in building a better community—the public works department, traffic engineers, school administrators, law enforcement, the Chamber of Commerce, etc. “When I go into a town and address a group of people I like to inspire them and have them realize that somebody on the outside knows that what they are doing matters,” begins Burden. “The more players you can get that are high level, the easier it's going to be for the community to bring change. But what I'm looking for is a spark plug. Just one person that gets the message, has the creative spirit and goes out and turns the world around.”
Afterwards he takes his disciples out on the street to demonstrate how and where they might make changes, ideas that are often meet with great resistance in the community-at-large. “I do have to say that some very, very good ideas do get shot down in this country just because people are afraid of change,” says Burden. “Fear brings out the most bizarre, irrational ideas about why you do or don't want something.”
As a general rule, Burden's recommendations go beyond adding sidewalks and providing space to walk safely. "The principles of becoming 'walkable' are really straightforward,” begins Burden. “It's not just about sidewalks or being able to get across the street. It's really about putting things in the right place—to make sure you get your civic buildings, your plazas and your greatest retail, residential and commercial buildings all within walking scale—that is, a five-minute walk from the absolute center.”
Burden also advocates less space for cars instead of more. “Another principle is transferring space into place—taking out all of the parking lots, big wide intersections and streets,” he says. “Everything has got to slow down. Nobody should be driving through a town center at faster than 25 mph. So you work on making something so attractive and intriguing that no one wants to drive fast.”
Money Isn't Everything
Of course, not every town and city in America is in need of an overhaul. “The central town area in West Hartford, Connecticut, is absolutely sterling,” maintains Burden, who compliments everything from town's sidewalk surfaces to its on-street parking, window displays, outdoor cafes, streetlights and trees. According to Burden, wealth doesn't necessarily ensure walkability. “Some of the best towns in America—one of my favorites is Littleton, New Hampshire—are very basic. They can't afford a lot so they just take care of what they've got. In fact, a general truism is that the towns that have too much money end up destroying themselves. A lot of places in America, if they had less money, would have kept their purity.”
As further proof of his “less-is-more” theory, Burden notes there are numerous foreign countries that do a better job with the resources available. “We can take a lesson from almost any city in Canada. We have more money, they have more common sense,” claims Burden. But he points to Curitiba, Brazil, as a model for making the most of limited resources. “The [former] mayor there, Jaime Lerner [now serving as President of the International Union of Architects] built things that every city in America is looking at. He knew he didn't have a lot of money so he had to come up with better ideas,” continues Burden.
Many of Lerner's innovations revolved around rapid transit. For example, in Curitiba the buses run in dedicated lanes down the middle of the road. “They put these tubes in the center so people walk into the tube and pay the fare before they go onto the bus so the bus pulls in just like a subway—there's no trade onboard,” advises Burden. The system provides a sheltered waiting area, allows for faster loading and unloading, and reduces air pollution. Meanwhile, the buses run as fast as trains at a fraction of the cost. When the city couldn't afford garbage pickup, Lerner integrated mass transit into the solution, creating dumping stations at bus stops and rewarding users with free all-day bus passes. “He solved two problems at once,” marvels Burden. “He got the people to use mass transit and he collected all the garbage.”
Burden rarely gets to enjoy the fruits of his labor—he's so busy he hardly ever visits the same place twice. A rare exception is Brighton, Michigan, which brought Burden in three times, most recently to get a report card on the changes the town integrated. “I spent two solid days looking at all the things they built—all built the way I suggested, even things that were fairly radical,” says Burden. For instance, to combat a speeding problem on a particular thoroughfare they painted the street a coral color—a proven traffic calming method—seven feet out on either side. “Nobody had ever taken me up on that,” reports Burden. “They did it and said, 'Dan, within a week we were measuring speeds 7 mph lower and it only cost us $25,000 for one-and-a-half miles of treatment.'”
As for the report card, Burden says he gave Brighton a B+, despite all the new sidewalks, buildings, connectors and “dynamite” intersections. “There's a couple things they still have to do to get the A," says Burden, with a grin.
Naturally, not every town is as receptive as Brighton. According to Burden many city planners and traffic engineers are so overworked that they don't have time to do anything proactive. Another obstacle is the omnipresent threat of lawsuits. “Many engineers tell me, ‘Dan, I'm not going to do that because I might get sued,’” he laments. “The best professionals are looking for something that is a compromise on a compromise on a compromise. We've whittled ourselves down so that nobody believes in the things that get approved.”
Driving The Point Home
While Burden's primary goal is to help restore a sense of community in our cities, he points out that there's a huge, if not obvious, economic incentive to develop compact town centers. “Places like Sacramento or Santa Barbara or Burlington, Vermont—every one of them is making money because the things they are now doing are compact,” claims Burden. Not only do shoppers spend more money when they can walk through an entire downtown area, the city in question can spend less on maintaining its infrastructure. “Anytime we build our towns for the car we are putting all our money into these vast streets, intersections and drainage systems. The car has never begun to pay its fair share for what resources it commands. So any town that goes out and builds for cars is draining all its resources for parks, plazas and schools,” he continues.
Just Do It
Considering the impact Burden has already made, some might be dismayed to learn that he plans to operate Walkable Communities for just three more years. “The day I started, I made a commitment for 10 years. So Labor Day of 2006 I will go on to the next thing, which will be to start a rolling institute,” begins Burden. Instead of the adventure vacations that are currently all the rage, Burden hopes people will pay to board a bus and learn how cities are made. “For three days it will be total saturated learning—for training the advocates of the future,” says Burden, who also envisions university-sponsored programs in which he takes professionals out for several weeks at a time, focusing on topics like economics, land use planning, engineering or forestry. “What we'll end up with on our bus is up to 16 people, all from different disciplines, all learning together and teaching one another,” he says.
While it might come across as cliché, Burden's experience proves that one person can make a difference. “I truly believe what [anthropologist] Margaret Mead said about how all it takes is a small handful of people to bring change,” notes Burden. “Nothing of importance has been brought about any other way.”