Mark Fenton Interview

PEDESTRIAN ADVOCATE Mark Fenton is coming to Spokane to present a free community meeting “Walking to the Future,” on Tuesday, September 29, 6:30PM, at the Lincoln Center, 1613 N. Lincoln St. An expert in “healthy community design”—the convergence of public health and city planning — Fenton is a renowned public speaker and hosts the PBS show America’s Walking.

OTM: How can Spokane become more pedestrian-friendly?

Mark Fenton: Require what’s called “complete streets.” Every time we build or even touch the streets, whether we’re upgrading or even just maintaining an existing street—a repaving program, a line-painting—we ask a simple question: are we taking care of all four kinds of transportation—pedestrian, biking, transit and motor vehicles? That’s dramatically different than what we have historically done.

Expand safe routes to school. Get as many kids as possible being active in and around the school—and that’s not just for kids who are close enough to walk and bike to school. Where it’s safe, encourage kids to walk and bike more and where it’s not, then make it safe.

I would look for a comprehensive shift in which travel modes we choose to subsidize. We are already subsidizing transit—If somebody says ‘Fenton, you’re trying to be a social engineer,’ I’m going to point to the federal highway bill.

Driving an automobile is artificially cheap in the United States—we subsidize driving. We do it by taxing ourselves and then dumping most of it into the roads, and many Americans don’t realize we do it. I’m going to make a public health argument that we should shift our use of transit money.

OTM: How can we make complete streets happen in Spokane?

MF: One of the hot topics out there are what are called road diets—you take, for example a four-lane profile and you take it down to two, one in each direction, with a center turn lane, then you have space to do a bike lane or on-street parking. Then you’re not doing things like building giant parking garages. That’s not what you want; you want people living in downtown.

You can’t have the conversation about what we do with the streets in a vacuum—you have to put in all the other elements, like what you do with all the surrounding land uses.

OTM: What do you say to people who argue that creating complete streets is too expensive?

MF: I say poppycock. Of course it costs money, but you don’t do everything all at once. What you do is begin a process. You use all the tools in the toolbox, from transportation enhancement plans to not building anything wrong in the first place.

Not everything’s an expensive fix. We have roads that will take four million dollars to rebuild, but they’re way down on the list. There are also roads that, with paint, you re-stripe the four lanes to three.

OTM: Traffic engineers have asserted crosswalks give pedestrians a false sense of security, making them less safe because they assume cars will stop. What do you think of the notion that removing crosswalks makes pedestrians safer?

MF: It is a cop-out to simply say installing crosswalks makes pedestrians less safe. You may need more than simply striping the crosswalk – possibly signs, signals, a median island, etc. to make [a crosswalk] safe.

I doubt anyone is actually saying “removing crosswalks makes pedestrians safer.” What they’re likely saying is “We haven’t got the time or money to put in an appropriately designed crosswalk here, so instead we’re going to do nothing.” Unfortunately, that is reflective of a very dangerous philosophy that may protect them from litigation if a pedestrian is hit there, but it does not solve the problem of dangerous crossing conditions.

OTM: Where’s the overlap of, and where is the divergence between, pedestrian advocacy and bike advocacy?

MF: People talk about the divergence; I’m not convinced there is one. If you design right, bicyclist and pedestrians should never be in conflict. Build roadways that can accommodate the 25-mile-an-hour road cyclist with the skinny tires and dropped handle bars training for a century. They’re not going to use multi-use trails with moms with strollers.

OTM: How can we, as individuals, be pedestrian advocates?

MF: Start by changing your own personal habits. One thing you can do [to reduce emissions] is reduce your miles per gallon. The second thing, which is more important, is to reduce your miles per year. Just drive less. Where you can, [emphasize] functional ways of doing physical activity. Look for one additional opportunity per week when you turn the key in the ignition of your car to not do that. Invite somebody else to do the same.

Be a change agent in the community. And that would mean step up and ask city council, policy makers, county commission, neighborhood organization to continue to build our walkways and bikeways. That may be the shove the planning commission needs.

If we design a community right, people will be more active and if they’re designed poorly, people will be less active. There’s a reason that people in Portland, [Oregon] and Minneapolis, Minnesota use bicycling and walking for transit more and drive less. And it’s not just because they’re all crunching granola—it’s simply because it’s easier and cheaper to walk.

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All-day workshop for planners, policy-makers, developers and engineers: 7:30 a.m. 4:00 p.m. at the YMCA at 930 N. Monroe. Free community meeting, open to the public: 6:30 to 8:30pm at Lincoln Center. For more info, contact the Spokane Regional Transit Commission at (509) 343-6370 or


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