I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to be more physically active. I spend time on top of that trying to convince people that we should change the built environment, parking policies, and traffic laws to allow people to be more physically active.
One of my old standby stories is of a person who's spent most of his life sitting on the couch watching TV. He goes in for a routine operation, has a catastrophic adverse event, and ends up paralyzed as a result. When he wakes up the surgeon and the anesthesiologist gather to tell him the bad news. The first question out of this man's mouth, a man who has not walked further than from the bed to the bathroom, the bathroom to the kitchen, the kitchen to the sofa, or the car to his office cubicle in years, is this: "When will I walk again?"
I've even posted the story here from time to time.
My point with the story has always been to get people to approach the world from a perspective of abundance. Don't take for granted the gifts you have today. Our bodies were designed by millions of years of evolution to move bipedally. If we forsake that, we end up less healthy and less happy.
But yesterday I listened to Enter the Exos, a new-ish episode in Rose Eveleth's always thoughtful series Flash Forward.
In the episode, Rose spends a predictable amount of time talking about the possibility that robotic exoskeletons, or even powered clothing, will make us faster, stronger, and less prone to injury:
But she spends an even greater amount of time talking with people with various disabilities about their perception of exoskeletons. This is the part that got me. William Peace, blogger of Bad Cripple, has this to say:
Your typical bipedal person exposed to a barrage of misleading news stories is led to believe all paralyzed people share one goal in life--walking. Please cue the soaring inspirational music accompanied by the brave and noble young man or woman struggling to walk surrounded by health care professionals, computer scientists, and engineers who share the same ritualized ideal.
There is so much to unpack there. I walk, and I like doing it, so I've always thought that other people without the ability would want it. And maybe they would, if the technology were developed that could be applied to people with all kinds of disabilities (cerebral palsy is a lot different than spinal cord injury is a lot different than post-polio, etc). But bipeds like me have a hard time imagining that someone wouldn't want to get closer to the way I move, just like people with normal hearing are mystified by deaf culture. When I put myself in the position of someone who is in a wheelchair or needs another assistive device, I can see and hear the condescension in my words.
So I'm changing my pitch. I'm going to lean more on the "move through space" message and delete the "walking" part. I plan to work harder on the infrastructure message, with curb cuts and tactile crosswalks and protected walking lanes and a hundred other easy fixes that make life better not only for differently abled people, but for people who can walk and bike without difficulty like me.
And I'm going back to my perspective of abundance: we don't have functioning exoskeletons or other sexy fixes for paralysis or weakness yet, but we're all cyborgs already. Most of us carry a device in our pocket that literally has the world's knowledge at our fingertips. We should harness that technology to find safer routes for human-powered transportation of all kinds. And people who can't walk have a 235 year history of constantly improving wheelchair technology whose potential could be unleashed with a little more attention paid to the way we design our environment and laws.
I have a low-grade smoldering obsession with parking right now. Blame it on strongtowns.org. It drives me crazy that when you look at a google image of my hometown, the parking takes up more space than the buildings themselves:
The tax revenue from that parking? Zero, basically. The revenue from paid parking? I can't find the number, but I know it is low, because most of the spaces don't have a meter, and the ones that do have a meter tend to be 1950s models that only take quarters.
Anyway, I've fallen into a YouTube rabbit hole recently around parking. Other noteworthy bullets from the brief video above from Jeff Tumlin:
- For a single family, getting rid of one car = affording an additional $100,000 in mortgage
- Parking "search traffic" accounts for 8-74% of downtown traffic
- All parking meters need to accept forms of payment that people actually carry. Most of us don't carry change anymore
- The "right" price for parking is the lowest price that achieves about a 15% availability target
If you're really into this, and want to hear some health-related data, and you have an hour to spare, wade into this:
A couple weeks ago, I spent some time in a YMCA parking lot to do the Wichita Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's bike/pedestrian count. I was in a pretty rural area, and the bike/ped traffic was light. It gave me a chance to watch the steady stream of cars in and out of the lot, though. The Y was rocking, which made me happy, but I couldn't help but wonder about the goals of the people in the cars screeching in and out of the driveway.
A woman who worked in the office of a YMCA recently told me that one of the biggest safety issues the organization deals with is parking lot safety for pedestrians. So many people circle the parking lot in their fancy gas-powered wheelchairs during busy times that pedestrians crossing the lot were in danger of being run over.
She was talking about people circling the lot, mind you, so that they could walk the minimum distance to get into the building and walk...on a treadmill. Or ride a stationary bike or something.
This problem is a bit of a throwback for me. I remember as a kid, when the remote controls for TVs were still mostly up-and-down affairs (hit the up arrow to scroll upward through channels, hit the down arrow to go the other way; ditto volume), I would, out of habit, walk all over the room looking for the remote so I could change the channel on the TV. I would walk multiples of the distance it would have taken me to simply get off the couch and walk to the TV and push a button. But like the Kodak people who couldn't imagine a world without film, I couldn't imagine a world without the satisfying weight of that remote, with its sleek aluminum Sony case, in my hand.
Is there a name for this particular brand of self-defeating convenience? I've stretched Google's abilities to the limit and I can't identify one. But it clearly pre-dates modern technology. And don't get me wrong. I've ridden, and continue to ride, an absurd number of miles in cars. But I've felt like an asshole for almost all of those miles that didn't involve traveling outside of town.
But back to parking. Scott Wadle of the City of WIchita likes to say that there's no such thing as free parking. While he means that we all subsidize the space that cars take up whether we mean to or not, I think of it in more cosmic terms. All that space could be used for something else. And the physical activity it would take us to park in vertical garages and walk to our destination, or the slightly greater physical activity it would take for us to bike to work would be a small price to pay to get green space and health back. An optimist's view of the coming autonomous fancy gas-powered wheelchairs is that we'll need far less parking, thus opening up more and more space for commerce and for public use. A pessimist's view is that we'll eventually transition to a WALL-E situation in which your autonomous gas-powered wheelchair picks you up at your door to deposit you in front of the door to your office, at which point a smaller, more Segway-inspired motorized device takes you to your desk. Where you sit. All day.
I'm not going to talk about "productivity" or "optimization" here. There are plenty of places to get a dose of that perspective. But just consider this when it comes to the YMCA or your local health club: grinding away on a treadmill for 30 minutes a day after driving an oversize luxury wheelchair to the building is not my idea of freedom. It's a chore. But if I turn that chore into the choice to walk or ride by the health club while I watch all the wheelchair circle: that choice makes me unspeakably happy.