Skip to content.
A photo of a mostly-empty parking lot and a church steeple in the distance.

Walking in a hollow city

As I recovered from my car crash last year, I took up walking more. Each Sunday morning I would walk to church and, thanks to the calmer weekend traffic, I noticed all sorts of details around my neighborhood that I never paid attention to before. But after several weeks of this, I felt a deep awareness of how empty my city can be.

My route from Columbus’ Lakebottom Park to downtown makes for a lonely journey. You can walk it many times before you cross paths with another human being, and the chances that you even see another person from a distance is probably fifty-fifty.

You might see an athlete zip past as they cycle or jog on our Dragonfly Trail. But most of the time, if you see anyone in public at all, you see people who don’t have anywhere else to go. They don’t dress fashionably and don’t smile when they pass you. Many of them talk to themselves while they walk. They’re almost all male and at least middle-aged. I probably look like I fit right in. Even if I didn’t, it’s not like anyone else is around to notice.

A photo of a sidewalk and houses.

A photo of a parking lot that's vacant except for a single pickup truck.

My route is walkable in every technical sense. It has multiple sidewalks for its entire length, and even the aforementioned multi-use path for part of it. But it would be a stretch to call it comfortable, friendly, or possibly even safe. It feels less like walking and more like hiking.

(For the record, I’ve never felt unsafe on this route, but I likely owe that to my background and demographic. A parent would probably get a visit from the state if they were caught letting their child walk here unsupervised.)

As lonely as these walks can be, part of me enjoys them. Before I settled down in the “big city” of Columbus, I spent much of my young life in the great outdoors. I feel comfortable with solitude, and I like being alone with my thoughts.

But this whole situation feels wrong. It’s like walking through a forest that should be teeming with animals but you can’t hear a single chirp of birdsong. Even if you don’t know why the birds vanished, their silence betrays the ecosystem’s collapse. It’s hard not to wonder why one of Georgia’s most populous cities is so eerily quiet. Why can you cross neighborhood after neighborhood and only see empty front yards, empty sidewalks, and empty storefronts?

A photo of an empty parking lot with a store that says "Corner Lot."

A photo of an empty street.

Even if everyone is just enjoying themselves indoors, the population on this stretch is especially thin. After I pass through the park district, commercial buildings mainly line the streets. These aren’t businesses that invite socializing, but rather they’re storage units and auto shops. Many of the buildings are vacant. There are a few newer restaurants and antique stores that do well in a revitalized section, but they’re like isolated islands in the emptiness, and they’re purely commercial. When business hours are over, the parking lots empty and people vanish.

And there’s a lot of blight. So much architecture along my walk consists of rotting buildings that have been empty for decades. They’ve persisted that way across many administrations and as other businesses have come and gone.

It again evokes an spooky sense that something is deeply wrong. My neighborhood, a few blocks away, is vibrant and thriving with people. The downtown area, a few blocks in the other direction, is experiencing a renaissance of new businesses and housing. Why is the area between the two so desolate? Shouldn’t it be prime real estate?

A photo of a sidewalk curving up a hill with a chainlink fence.

A photo of an sidewalk beside an empty parking lot.

When the North American suburban experiment kicked off a couple of generations ago, new development accelerated in urban outskirts, sucking resources from the city centers. As a result, historic towns became hollowed-out, full of empty roads and crumbling buildings. The new parts of the cities, patchworks of strip malls, subdivisions, and interstates, surrounded the centers like a donut.

Southern cities saw most of their growth during this era, and they especially bought into this experimental development pattern. Columbus followed suit. A few decades later, we’re living in its natural end-result.

Some of the damage is reversing now, and I don’t want to shortchange the progress that people in my city are making. The restaurants and stores I mentioned earlier have breathed new life into the old buildings they inhabit. Piece by piece, these blighted blocks are transforming into something friendly and productive.

But today, on a beautiful Sunday morning, on this walkable route, this part of the city is empty. Maybe everyone is at home with their screens or out shopping in the strip malls, but they’re not here.

A photo of a mostly-empty parking lot and a church steeple in the distance.

During my last walk, I passed two men on bicycles swerving in and out of the lanes. They were not cyclists; they wore street clothes with no helmets, and their seat posts looked uncomfortably low. They each balanced a cardboard box on their handlebars. One of them looked at me and shouted a question I didn’t catch, but he made a “lighter” gesture with his thumb. I said I don’t smoke, and the two kept cruising past down the hill.

Your town used to be walkable

It probably seems that your city must have always been built around interstates and parking lots. You may even have difficulty imagining that your city could ever function without cars. But that’s a modern myth. The truth is that your town used to be walkable, and it could be walkable once again.

Strong Towns published a piece recently called “Dallas Used to be Walkable,” in which they share a film recorded in downtown Dallas in 1939. It shows streets bustling with people on foot. They’re going to homes, restaurants, and businesses. It’s unrecognizable as the Dallas we have today.

This reminded me of when I shared a photo of my city, Columbus Georgia, from 1900. Here it is again, courtesy of the Digital Library of Georgia:

Historic photo of Springer Opera House.

Now compare it to what that intersection looks like today:

Google Street view of Springer Opera House today.

A corner that once saw carriages, trolleys, bicycles, and people is now only home to cars. This isn’t to romanticize the past (I doubt many of us want to bring back horse-drawn carriages) but look at how diverse the mobility options were over a century ago compared to now. Our city used to be alive with people, and now it’s a giant parking lot for cars.

In the 50s and 60s, people thought maximizing car infrastructure was the way to the future. The article about Dallas quotes its mayor at the time: “Dallas will never be a modern city as long as it is tied to an antiquated, electric rail system.”

Now we live in that future, but we don’t have to stay trapped in it. If people in the 50s could raze neighborhoods to build parking lots and interstates, then we can build neighborhoods back at human scale like they were before.

Preliminary data shows that pedestrian deaths fell slightly in 2023, but are still higher than pre-pandemic levels

The Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) released data from the first half of 2023 which shows pedestrian fatalities dropped 4% compared to the same time period in 2022. However, deaths are still far higher than every other year in the past decade.

A chart showing U.S. pedestrian fatalities from 2013-2023, January-June.

Image source: Governors Highway Safety Association.

The GHSA press release cites several factors that led to our deadly roads:

A steep drop in traffic enforcement across the country since 2020 has enabled dangerous driving behaviors – including speeding and driving impaired – to flourish. At the same time, roads are largely designed to prioritize fast-moving vehicle traffic instead of slower speeds that are safer for people walking. Many parts of the country lack infrastructure – such as sidewalks, crosswalks and lighting – that help protect people on foot. The U.S. vehicle fleet is increasingly dominated by larger, heavier vehicles that are more likely to injure or kill people walking.

While any drop in deaths is good news, we still haven’t seen those root problems addressed at a nationwide scale yet. It’s uncertain whether or not that 4% decrease is a statistical anomaly or the sign of a new trend.

2022 marked a 40-year high in pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the United States. Even with 2023’s drop (so far), we’re still seeing near-record fatalities. The deaths are worse in southern states, with 37% of all deaths taking place in California, Florida, and Texas.

GHSA cites the South’s nice weather as an explanation for their higher death rates. “These states have warmer climates, which tend to increase travel on foot, […]”

They’re also the states that saw most of their growth after highway expansion was pushed nationwide, and thus have highly car-oriented cities. Either way, if our weather is so good that more people want to get outside on foot, then that’s all the more reason why we need to seriously invest in better pedestrian safety and comfort.

The first study comparing cargo bicycles and car ownership shows that most riders find their bikes superior

At least in Germany, where the study was held. Nonetheless, the cargo bicycle advantages are not merely theoretical. Researchers took 2,590 people who rode cargo bikes and surveyed their car ownership status along with their opinions comparing the two options. The results show not only that car ownership goes down when people ride cargo bikes, but respondents claimed that their bikes were superior by almost every metric.

You can read the full study here: “Can cargo bikes compete with cars? Cargo bike sharing users rate cargo bikes superior on most motives – Especially if they reduced car ownership.”

The data reveals that 18% of cargo bike riders either got rid of a car they already owned, or they had planned to buy a car but ultimately chose not to.

But that’s just part of the story. When participants rated how their bikes compared to cars, bikes won in most categories, especially in ones that they selected as more important.

Cargo bikes were rated superior in categories like: flexibility, low price, no stress, freedom, pleasure, social recognition, self-expression, and environmentally friendly. The only categories that cars won were, perhaps unsurprisingly: travel speed, comfort, weather-independence, and just barely traffic safety.

Ratings of cargo bikes and cars with regard to different motives.

Of course there may be a degree of selection bias. The study targeted people in Germany who already use cargo bikes. But I don’t believe that detracts from the main takeaway. Outside’s Velo made this observation:

“Duh,” you’re probably saying to yourself. “Of course someone using a cargo bike will cut down their car ownership! You don’t buy a cargo bike to not use it.”

What’s more interesting is that surveyed people agreed that cargo bikes are better than cars across nearly all aspects, regardless of whether the person was considered car-dependent or had reduced car ownership outright.

This is what makes the study significant. It challenges the conventional wisdom (at least in North America) that cars are naturally superior to all other modes of transportation. Our governments have capitalized on this belief to justify huge investments into single-use car infrastructure at the expense of every other mobility option, and usually at enormous deficits. The reality is that even a car-dependent person may find a bicycle superior to their car at times.

Looking beyond the car-versus-bicycle dichotomy, there’s another obvious truth this study reveals. Different people have different preferences for their transportation, and some people may enjoy choosing from many options. They can be “car-dependent” but still want the choice to ride a bike. This may seem self-evident, but even this is a radical idea in a culture that values car-superiority.

If it’s easy for us in North America to see these studies and say “that won’t work here,” then maybe now is the time for us to instead ask, why won’t we let it work here?

People Powered Movement reports on bicycle safety in Columbus Georgia

People Powered Movement, an organization that focuses on improving bicycle advocacy across the United States, just published a bicycle safety overview of Columbus Georgia. They summarize the state of our infrastructure, crash data, and the city’s progress so far.

You can read their report here. It’s a birds-eye view of all of the available public data. So while it does not make any new insights that Columbus residents probably haven’t seen before, it neatly organizes the information into one page.

Hopefully reports like this will help the city’s name get more traction with the larger bicycling culture, at least among anyone who follows this kind of reporting or who searches the web for them.

All of the ways you can follow the Bike Walk Life blog

Now that I’m back to writing for this blog, here’s how you can stay up-to-date with each new post.

Option 1: Web feed

The most basic and reliable way is to subscribe to this website’s feed. Just point your favorite feed reader app to this website and you should be good to go. If you need to configure your reader manually, the feed’s direct URL is here:

I think web feeds are a great bit of technology, even if they never quite hit the mainstream. Here is a quick primer for how feeds work.

Option 2: Email newsletter

If you aren’t using a feed reader app, then you can subscribe to my email newsletter version here. This newsletter is set up to automatically take the feed’s content and aggregate it into a weekly summary. The key difference between this and option 1 is that it only updates once a week. We all have too much in our inboxes already, so I consider that to be a feature.

Option 3: Social media (to an extent)

I have a couple of social media accounts I use in conjunction with this blog. They sort of mirror the feed too, except I haven’t gotten around to automating them.

My official accounts are:

Why only those and not whatever-other-social-media-app instead? The technical answer is that the Bridgy service works with those.

The longer answer is that they allow me to take any “likes,” “reposts,” etc. and display those on each page of this blog. You can see the bottom of my recent “I’m back” post for an example of how “likes” display.

Use whatever works for you

Just like bicycles, I like to keep my digital technology simple and elegant. Back when the word “blog” first appeared, in the olden days of the early 2000s, people followed them by just checking bookmarks regularly. If that still works for you, go for it.

Personally, I get exhausted by keeping up with the revolving door of new apps and services, since the good ol’ web still works fine for me. I hope that the options I provide here can empower you to keep reading however you enjoy.

Georgia Bikes policy initiatives banner.
Image credit: Georgia Bikes.

Georgia Bikes' three-year priorities

Georgia Bikes just shared their advocacy priorities for the next three years. And a bill for one of them, the “yield bill,” is already moving forward in the state house.

The bill HB978 would “authorize operators of bicycles to treat stop signs as yield signs” if passed. It was approved by the House Motor Vehicles Committee on February 6, thus clearing one of many hurdles it faces to eventually become law.

It’s great to have a statewide organization that not only advocates for bicycling but is transparent about its long-term plans. This helps set a model for local organizations, like my own city’s, to follow.

You can view the priorities in graphic form on their website here, but I’ve recreated the text below for better accessibility. All credit for its contents goes to Georgia Bikes.

State priorities

1. Vulnerable road user legislation

Protect VRUs with increased penalties for drivers who injure or kill a pedestrian, bicyclist, wheelchair user, or worker in the roadway.

2. Georgia yield legislation

Pass Georgia Yield legislation, allowing bicyclists to proceed through a stop sign without coming to a full stop when it is safe to do so.

3. Enforcement of three-foot law

Ensure effective enforcement of the three-foot passing law, fostering a culture of safety and adherence.

4. Safe speeds on Georgia roads

  • Simplify the process for local jurisdictions to lower speed limits.
  • Update the state’s “85th-percentile” rule for speed-limit setting

Local priorities

1. Complete streets approach

Increase number of communities implementing a complete streets approach (ex.: complete streets policy, vision zero plan, local bike/ped coordinator, traffic-calming program, etc.).

2. Planning & development patterns

Increase community walkability and bikeability through the use of comprehensive plans, zoning codes, metropolitan transportation plans, and other local and regional mechanisms.

3. Infrastructure funding

Work with cities and counties to dedicate local dollars and pursue federal and state match funding to build better bike/walk infrastructure.

I'm back

I took a hiatus following my car crash, but now I’m biking and blogging once again. With the chaos that occupied the last few months of my life finally subsiding, I can hopefully return to my previous rhythm.

My crash was ill-timed for the Bike Walk Life blog because there was a lot of bicycle news following it. Most notably for me was that I was elected president of Bicycle Columbus, my city’s nonprofit bicycle and pedestrian advocacy group. This position comes with some big shoes to fill, but I’m looking forward to leading the next chapter of bicycling in Columbus Georgia.

In statewide news, Georgia Bikes hosted their first in-person Bike Walk Summit in several years. I was unable to attend, but I’m eager to try some of the topics they covered, such as walking audits, here in Columbus. Georgia Bikes also released their 2023 impact report, which covers their accomplishments in education, advocacy, and more. You can view the impact report here.

In more recent news, our local TV station WTVM published a report on a pedestrian who was struck by a car in September and just died a couple of weeks ago. You can read it here. Most news stories on crashes and traffic deaths are dreadfully clinical at best and are victim-blaming at worst. This one focuses on the victim’s family and the emotional costs we all bear for these crashes.

“How can you be at fault if you’re in the crosswalk? It doesn’t make sense,” said Marcus.

The story doesn’t acknowledge the structural issues that enable these kinds of tragedies to continue, how we continue to build our streets to maximize vehicle speed at the expense of the safety of everyone else. But it also doesn’t try to normalize the tragedy or make excuses, which is better than most stories.

As for my own crash, it’s my hope that my healing will continue and all of that will be settled and behind me soon. Even though I wasn’t at fault, experiencing a crash first-hand has certainly given me a new perspective on what it means to be safe on the road. Be on the lookout for more from me about it in the coming year.

I was hit by a car while bicycling

Last week, a car crashed into me during my bike commute. This is a terrible situation, but I’m recovering and it could have been far worse. I often write about how our transportation system is dangerous by design, but it’s scary to personally become one of its victims.

The crash happened under innocuous circumstances. I had stopped at an intersection to wait for cross-traffic to clear. A car on the other street made a left turn, veered into the wrong lane, and collided with the front of my bicycle. The next thing I knew, I was over the handlebars, sliding across the car’s hood, and falling face-first onto the pavement.

A lot about this incident doesn’t fit the regular image of crashes. It happened in daylight on a relatively low-speed, low traffic, residential street, just across from a school and a block away from a park. This is one of the neighborhoods in my city where it’s common to see people biking and walking, and I usually ride on these streets because they’re safer and comfortable for cyclists. At least, they’re safe until the sudden, violent moment that they aren’t anymore.

This experience has made one thing crystal clear, which is how a crash can happen to anyone at any place. I could have been much less fortunate if the car had been moving faster, if the driver had left the scene, if a passerby had not stopped to help, and if I didn’t have my support network to help me through it.

Breaking the news to people has been interesting. There’s no graceful way to tell someone “I got hit by a car.” A lot of people here are suspicious of bicycling because they view it as dangerous, and part of me hates to confirm their fears.

But they’re right, it is dangerous. That’s because our streets as a whole are dangerous, as I regularly say on this blog. The most frustrating thing for me is that everyone knows our transportation system is dangerous but few people care about changing it. Even a seemingly-safe street is just one distracted driver away from disaster, which means it’s not really safe at all.

I may have more to write about this in the future, but for now my recovery is still ongoing. I look forward to when I can get back in the saddle.

Coffeeneuring challenge 2023 banner.
Image credit: Chasing Mailboxes.

International Coffee Outside Day and Coffeeneuring Challenge 2023

For you bicycle and coffee lovers, we’re getting two events back-to-back this year. International Coffee Outside Day is happening on Sunday, October first, and the Coffeeneuring Challenge kicks off one week later, on October seventh.

International Coffee Day is organized by the company RideWithGPS. You can join or host an official meetup for cyclists to drink coffee together, and it has sponsors and prizes. You can learn more about it on their official website

Coffeeneuring is a non-corporate challenge that runs from October 7 through November 20. Participants will each go on seven bike rides to drink coffee (or another fall-type beverage). It has a list of official rules, but the spirit of the challenge is laid back and fun. For the most part, as long as you ride a bike and drink a hot beverage, then you qualify. You can read all of the details on the Chasing Mailboxes blog.

I’ve participated in Coffeeneuring for several years now, some of which I documented on this blog:

I’m looking forward to joining again for 2023!

The linguistic origins of the term jaywalker

Jaywalker is a popular pejorative that also enjoys a legal definition. Most of us have heard the term, but we are unaware of its history or even what “jay” means.

The blog Grammarphobia has an article ‘on jays and jaywalkers’ which answers the questions you may have never thought to ask.

The word “jay” in this context does not refer to the bird, but rather an old-timey slang word for “a stupid, gullible, or contemptible fellow.” Anyone stupid enough to walk on the wrong side of the road was ridiculed as a jay.

Interestingly, the term “jaydriver” appeared around the same time as “jaywalker.” Drivers would also find themselves confused as to which side of the road they should use in those early days of auto transportation.

The Grammarphobia article notes this observation:

Merriam-Webster adds that it’s “unclear why jaywalker shifted its meaning and survived for more than a hundred years now, while jay-driver languishes in obscurity.”

I assume that “jaywalker” would have languished in the past as well had it not become enshrined in law books. Either way, we still hold contempt for people who dangerously walk across the street, but consider dangerous driving to be just a mistake anyone could make.

When our streets are dangerous by design, then often the only feasible option is to “jaywalk.” This reality is now fueling the movement to decriminalize crossing the street.

National Week Without Driving 2023 is October 2-8

National Week Without Driving is an annual challenge by Disability Rights Washington (DRW). For 2023, they’re taking it national for the first time. It runs through October 2-8.

You can get information about how to participate from Disability Rights Washington’s website, as well as America Walks.

If you can drive or afford a car, you may not understand what it’s like to rely on walking, rolling, transit and asking for rides. But for nearly a third of people living in the United States – people with disabilities, young people, seniors and people who can’t afford cars or gas – this is our every day.  We created the Week Without Driving challenge so that policy makers, elected leaders and transportation professionals can begin to understand the barriers nondrivers experience in accessing our communities.

As an individual, you can participate by not driving yourself by car for the week and taking note of how it affects your daily life. If someone drives you or you use a taxi, consider the monetary and personal cost, and think about how that would be sustainable.

DRW notes that, although this challenge is organized with the purpose of promoting disability rights, it is not a disability simulation or a contest to see who has the best driving alternatives. The point is to make yourself aware of the choices that a non-driver must cope with in your community.

And they don’t say this explicitly, but I presume that simply bike commuting would not be in the spirit of the challenge either, for those of us who do that regularly already.