Out of Step

Greg Dawson has walked the walkability walk in Orlando—and it’s not a pretty sight.

Raquel Chilson

Having nailed down “Theme Park Capital of the World” for the foreseeable eternity,   Orlando has become an unabashed striver for loftier status, hoping that state-of-the-art venues for performing arts, big-league sports, and bio-med research, plus a new light rail system, will lead to elite-city status.

How ironic, then, that our image-conscious city has a big black eye that’s so much of who we are that no one notices anymore until a stranger rudely holds up a mirror and makes us look.

Headlines from 2014:

“Orlando ranks as most dangerous U.S. city for pedestrians, according to study.”

“Orlando ranks last in walkability, says study of 30 metros.”

Ouch. Ouch.

Here’s the worst part: We know it’s true. Melissa McCarthy has a better chance of winning the Hunger Games than you do of crossing Colonial Drive or Semoran Boulevard at rush hour without loss of life or limb.

Even Detroit, which I always mistake for Baghdad on the news, is rated a more walkable city than Orlando. Detroit! In a study of the nation’s 30 largest metro areas conducted by the George Washington University School of Business, Detroit ranked No. 22 with 14 “walkable urban places.” Metro Orlando has 3: Winter Park, Lake Eola/Thornton Park, and downtown.

In the Orlando Sentinel, Christopher Leinberger, professor of business at GWU and lead author of the study, identified one “bright spot”  locally. “Orlando is home to one of the finest pieces of walkable urbanism in the world,” he said. “The Magic Kingdom is a ginormous walkable place.”

Sure. If you’re willing to drive 40 miles round-trip, pay $17 for parking, and $99 for admission to the Magic Kingdom treadmill.
I reached Leinberger on the phone and asked about that line. “You’re kidding, right?”

“That was a tongue-in-cheek comment,” he said. “It’s ironic that Main Street itself is a throwback to a walkable urban place. Tourists pay $100 to enjoy walking in a walkable urban environment, but you can’t build that into everyday life.”

Of course, just because Orlando ranks last for walkability doesn’t mean people here don’t walk. “I’m walkin’ here!” to quote Ratso Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) in Midnight Cowboy as he pounds the hood of a New York City cab cutting him off in the street.

I toddle about 20 miles a week. But I’m not going anywhere. Like inmates in a prison yard, I walk in circles—around my neighborhood, or in bigger circles around Lake Eola or in other de-motorized zones. If I can help it, I never venture on foot outside our Edgewood neighborhood to Orange Avenue. There are sidewalks but conditions are brutal, with high-speed traffic and a mile to the nearest crosswalk with a signal.

But maybe I’m exaggerating, inflamed by a statistical study from an out-of-state university. The GWU academics didn’t even interview actual Orlando residents about their walking experience.

For some grounded local perspective, I called Rosemary Barna, president of the Mid-Florida Milers, a walking club with 120 members. Barna, 64, moved to Orlando from Little Rock, Ark., in 1971. She walks 10 to 25 miles a week, sticking mostly to residential areas and designated paths.

I was eager to get Barna’s take on the study, expecting her to take umbrage at the dissing of her home turf.
I asked her: “Was your reaction more like, ‘That’s a totally unfair opinion from academics who have never set foot in Orlando,’ or more toward, ‘Don’t I know it!’”

“More toward ‘Don’t I know it!’ ” Barna said. “I probably concur with most of it.”
After moving here, Barna “did a lot of biking early on. I would be very leery of biking on the roadways today. The same with walking.”

She’s wary of “the road rage thing” when crossing a street not in a residential area. In other countries she’s visited, “if you even approach a crosswalk, cars stop. That’s not going to happen in Orlando. When you’re on the corner waiting to cross, you’ve got to be alert to the right turn on red. They will pull up and turn, never mind that someone is waiting to cross the street.”

Though the GWU study is based on data, it turns out that Leinberger has walked the walk here, and the other 29 metro areas.
“I have been in Orlando many times over many years,” he said. “It is remarkable how anti-pedestrian the metro area is.”

How did this happen?

“Orlando is committed to the late-20th century development model of drivable sub-urbanism,” Leinberger said. “You can live any way you want to as long as you drive wherever you want to go. It’s a mandate that everybody must drive.”

Leinberger calls SunRail “a token approach to transit” and said if Orlando is serious about shifting transit paradigms, it would build streetcar lines connecting Winter Park to east Orlando and downtown.

That will happen right after Orlando hosts the Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, I’m still walkin’ here. But I want to live to see those streetcars, so I’m not banging on any car hoods.

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