Friday, August 30, 2013

The Realities of "Walkability"

When I was a kid, we had a corner store about a block away from our house. I remember my mom sending me there for a head of lettuce once and I brought home a head of cabbage. I was never trusted with a sacred mission again.

Hardly anyone shopped at that store, when they did, it was just for an occasional emergency item for dinner. All the kids in the neighborhood knew this because we were in there almost every day. We had a perfect closed economic system. Each day we'd scavenge the neighborhood for empty soda bottles--the vacant lot on on corner seemed to have an endless supply. We'd bring the bottles to the store, get 2 cents each for them, and buy penny candy. Everyone benefited: the store earned money, we got candy, and the neighborhood was cleaner.

The store closed before I was out of junior high. They couldn't make a profit when their regular customers were only spending a dime a day. When soda cans replaced bottles, it sealed the store's fate. No one else shopped there because the prices were high compared to the Penn Fruit and A&P markets, both within 6 blocks. Prices at small neighborhood stores will ALWAYS be higher.

At the Zoning Meeting last night, the word "walkability" and "sustainability" were bandied about quite a bit. I actually love the idealistic vision of a neighborhood where no one has to drive to bring home those things necessary for living. Ask my friends--I'm a huge cheerleader for the environment--my electricity comes from PA wind and solar power, and if I could afford the conversions, my house, car, and church would be completely free of fossil-fuels.

But I've come to believe the whole "walkability" = "sustainability" theory is a myth. If people were content to live, work, and shop in their own neighborhoods--to walk everywhere--New York City wouldn't have traffic jams. My NYC friends regularly drive to Jersey to shop at IKEA and Trader Joe's. It's human nature to not want to feel confined.

I have friends all over Norristown, not just in my own area. If I go meet one of them for a meal, I need a place to park. Creating "walkable" shops with inadequate parking means businesses can't lure customers from across town. We ought to be doing everything to help those business not only bring in other Norristonians, but out-of-town visitors.

I have a cousin who lives at Rittenhouse. She doesn't drive, so I'm glad she's got a deli on the corner, plus Plymouth Produce, Rite-Aid and Family Dollar within walking distance for many of her necessities. She hops the bus to go to Plymouth Meeting Mall.  But she still grabs a ride with her sister every other week to go to ShopRite. I drive her to church and on the occasional fast food run when she's craving KFC (as bad for her as driving is for the environment? I've got news for you, folks. When elders reach a certain age, they're less concerned with living forever than with enjoying the time they have left. I'm not going to refuse her).

Reality: people have cars and they're going to use them, especially on shopping trips where they have to lug home more than one bag. It doesn't matter how "walkable" their own neighborhoods are; they're going to drive. And, honestly, most of Norristown's 35,000 residents have nothing to walk to anyway. Myself included.

If we want to help the environment, let's think in terms of keeping money here in town. Encourage needed businesses--supermarkets, banks, home improvement stores, etc.--to open in places like Logan Square where there's enough parking. Encourage short auto trips in town over longer ones to East Norriton, King of Prussia and Chemical Road. That's better for the environment, and Norristown's economy, in the long run.

I could list a half dozen other, better things Norristown could be doing for the environment instead. That's another blog.


  1. I agree, and since Wal-Mart has the lowest prices out there, unless they put one in the heart of Ntown the majority will drive up to Germantown Pike for just a few items to save money.
    Yes, sustainability, walkable communities and growth are words being thrown around all over the country. The bad thing is the words eminent domain are usually not far behind....

  2. Jo-Mar closed their store on Markley Street in the past year. While I'll be the first to admit the product selection was a little lackluster, at least there was a decent discount clothier in the vicinity.

    I remember when we had the Mad Grocer in the late 80s/early 90s. Yes, they had only the generic store-brand products and you had to bag your own groceries, but how hard is it bring something like a Bottom Dollar or ALDI to either Markley Street or Sandy Hill? Why does Norristown have two Family Dollars? And on the Main Street downtown we can't even keep a decent coffee shop. Instead we have a shuttered and empty storefront that used to be a somewhat shady check cashing place. If Norristown wants a thriving theater district and "Arts Hill", why is there a office on that block of DeKalb with signage prominently displaying bail bonds services?

    Sometimes I question what Norristown really wants instead of just rolling up the sidewalks after working hours...

    1. Agree. But on the bright side, Caffe' Galileo will be opening across from the Courthouse soon. Jus' Java's a bit further to go (Dekalb and Brown), but everyone seems to like it.