Growing up in Marietta, Georgia, I played outside quite a bit, but while our neighborhood had some nice creeks and forests, it did not have any sidewalks. When you went somewhere, you got there in a car, even if it was less than a mile away. I remember driving to Eastside Baptist Church, which Google Maps says is .07 miles away from my childhood home. Walking was for the mall.
While there are certainly unhealthy and evolutionary inappropriate aspects of cities, at least many of them allow humans to walk. The ability to walk upright was one of the most important milestones in human evolution and it's estimated that the average hunter-gatherer San woman walks an average of 6.56 km a day. It's frightening how most of the United States has been built up in a way that privileges driving over walking. The result is that people in the United States don't walk very much. Slate put out a great series of walking recently, which discusses why Americans don't walk and what we can do about it.
My maternal grandmother, who is in her nineties and is in great health, gets asked often why she is so health for her age. One reasons she gives is that she walks a lot and has for her entire life. Much of that adult life was spent in NYC, but now she lives in central Illinois, where most people don't walk very much. My grandmother has made a great effort to keep up her walking habit, but sadly her town is built so it's not easy to actually walk anywhere useful. This is a growing obstacle for her since she says she no longer feels very comfortable driving at her age. In her town and in many other towns across the US, that makes her a second-class citizen with little access to amenities.
The choice to not drive is a difficult choice to make in the US. I know because I made it, quite unintentionally, when I was 16. I was never very coordinated and when my driving instructor died of a heart attack, I ended up with a string of rather mean and bad driving instructors that culminated in me failing my driving test and just giving up. My college town, Champaign-Urbana, is pretty decent in terms of public transportation and walking infrastructure, so I didn't feel much pressure to drive. There are some areas there that are pedestrian unfriendly, to say the least, and I the climate there is rather extreme. I got used to being scorched and frozen. With all the thermal hacking buzz in the health and fitness blogosphere, I'm thinking that perhaps it was good for me.
Then I moved to Uppsala, Sweden, which is a non-driver's paradise. Not only are there sidewalks everywhere, there are SAFE separate bike paths that wind through gorgeous forests. They are so unlike most of the so-called bike paths in the US, painted on the road, placing you next to trucks that could (and do) crush people at any moment. Even in the cold dark winter, people would bike since the city would put gravel on the paths to prevent ice issues. And not just young hip people, but mothers with babies, grandfathers, children...people biked everywhere. And the average bike on the market is built for that in mind. The average bike I see on Craigslist here in Chicago is a mountain bike that puts you in a rather bad position for anything but racing. Bikes in Sweden were built to carry stuff. And I did carry lots of stuff all the time. Even if I didn't make it to the gym, daily tasks kept me in pretty damn good shape. The best part about Sweden was that it was pretty easy to get around even in low-density rural areas. I could bike to farms or take the bus if they were really far away. Try doing that in Illinois. You basically can't.
But when I made the decision to move back to the US, I knew that there were only a handful of places I could live as a non-driver. I chose to move to NYC, which is probably the walking capital of the United States. I didn't bike in NYC, but just being a pedestrian was pretty extreme exercise, particularly since the housing I could afford was often a bit out of the way. And lots of subway stations have lots of stairs. That's one of the reasons I started wearing minimalist shoes every day, since it's not exactly easy to sprint for the bus or tackle the stairs to make a subway transfer if you are wearing heels. You haven't understood what it's like to be a hunter-gatherer unless you've trekked 2 miles with a giant bag of meat on your back. I realized that even though I wasn't doing much in the way of the gym or sports in NYC, that I was definitely not sedentary in the real sense of the term.
Chicago is a bit less pedestrian friendly, but I still manage here without a car. I'm planning on getting my license soon since it's unseemly and weird to not have one here and I'd like to actually be able to go to my family's farm and to Chicago's edges without always having to mooch a ride. But I can't imagine going back to the way of life that I was accustomed to as a child, the one in which traffic and driving are such a huge part of life. Walking changes you. I feel more creative and adventurous when I walk more. Nassim Taleb actually has an excellent essay on the subject of walking and the evolutionary lifestyle. I think more and more young people feel this way, which has kept rental prices quite high in urban core areas, as young people flock to them out of college and increasingly stay in them even as they "settle" down and have children.
Unfortunately, I wonder how much the infrastructure can keep up in a recession? Increased numbers of riders combined service cuts was one of most annoying things about living in NYC. One of the good things though was that NYC was increasingly making changes to very-pedestrian unfriendly intersections like Grand Army Plaza. Chicago is riddled with intersections that are basically pedestrian death traps. And pedestrians do die in the US at unacceptably high rates. This is going to have to change if we are to encourage people to live healthy active lifestyles that are evolutionarily appropriate for humans as a species.