Using walkability to sell the same old

How’s this for an illustration of urban sprawl issues in North America?

Urban Sprawl - Lorne Daniel Poet

Urban Sprawl – Lorne Daniel Poet

Just before Christmas, my Toyota conked out. The timing left something to be desired, given our holiday travel plans, but the repair arrangements were also less than convenient.

Our small city’s only Toyota dealer had recently relocated to a ‘big box’ zone near the highway on the city’s outskirts. So I drove out and had to catch the dealer shuttle van for a ride back into town. As is usually the case, I had to wait a few minutes. A number of other customers were doing likewise.

When the shuttle arrived, about eight of us clambered in, then sat for another 5 minutes or so. The shuttle was politely waiting for one more passenger who was finalizing his vehicle drop-off. Finally, we were on our way. Most of the passengers, like me, had put in about 15 minutes waiting for the ride. To be expected.

CostCo - Lorne Daniel - Victoria, BC

CostCo – Lorne Daniel – Victoria, BC

What I hadn’t expected was that shuttle turned out of the dealership lot, went through one intersection, down one street, turned into the back end of the Costco lot, and then up to the door, where four passengers laboriously clambered out (this being a mini van that required much shifting of seats and people to get us all in and out).

The ride must have taken 90 seconds, tops. But people waited 15 minutes rather than walk the same distance. That distance, by the way, was 540 metres. That’s slightly more than the distance you would walk if you entered one end of the nearby shopping mall and walked to the other end. It is, for heaven’s sake, over 300 metres just to do one circuit of the interior of that Costco.

I was astounded at people’s laziness. Sure, this is Canada and just before Christmas it’s chilly. But people here know that, and are generally dressed for it. There was no raging blizzard at the time. And I’ll cut some slack for a young woman who was in heels. At least two of the Costco-bound people, though, were hardy looking guys significantly younger than me.

We live in a world where people will wait 15 minutes for a 90 second ride, rather than stretching their legs and walking half a kilometre.

Using walkability to sell the same old

Using walkability to sell the same old

Mind you, I don’t entirely blame these passengers-in-life.

One of the ironies is that this entire development was sold, during the county’s quick and pretty planning process, as being “pedestrian friendly.” Sure. On the route we took that morning, or any other route in the area, there is not a sidewalk to be seen. A few years ago some excellent planning consultants were brought in and many very attractive drawings were produced showing cafes and patios and benches and all those comforting images of urban life.

The county got an easy ride on the approval process for the area plan and soon started selling lots to developers. None of the amenities shown in the artist’s depictions have been built.

What’s more, in many ways it doesn’t matter if they ever are built. In other words, a sidewalk or a bench here or there does not make a development “pedestrian friendly.” Suburban is not urban.

One of the reasons that “pedestrian friendly” won’t work in this environment is that the entire zone is designed for cars – car movement and car parking. When you see every building built at the back of a large lot surrounded by an asphalt desert of parking, you know that the pedestrian is not a real consideration.

The development that my Toyota dealer and Costco occupy are probably an extreme version of this phenomenon – after all, the area is even named “Gasoline Alley” for its most prominent feature – a long stretch of highway gasoline and fast food outlets.

If nothing else, the sheer scale of the development lots and their buildings will defeat any attempt to ‘dress it up’ with urban amenities. Those passengers in the Toyota shuttle van knew that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, of interest on that 540 metre walk. They would be exposed – walking with no sense of protection from vehicles or the elements, no visual or sensory subtleties. It’s a bleak environment for a human being who is not in the protective shell of a vehicle.

What we have here is the use of urban planning buzzwords to sell the same-old same-old. It’s like the “greenwashing” that occurs in marketing and urban planning – people selling consumerism with environmental jargon and imagery.

It’s faux walkability. Fake new urbanism. Phony friendliness.



  1. Lorne, I relate to this so much. I remember being stranded on a big box strip in Lethbridge once when I was there, in winter, for 10 days, without a car. It was hell! Nowhere to walk to. Hard even to cross the road as a pedestrian to get to one of the restaurants that lined the strip. These areas often have no pedestrian lights or ploughed sidewalks so you end up clambering over snow and dodging puddles in your sprint to safety.

    Bill Bryson wrote very well on the unwalking of America – in I’m A Stranger Here Myself – when he moved back from England to the US and decided to walk to the post office from his home. He said people kept stopping to offer him a lift. Says it all, really.


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