The world moves at a slower pace when Garry Lingerfelt is walking.
Street signs that pass like a blur when he’s driving along Ballinger Way in Shoreline come into sharper focus on foot. The scent from trees along on his route reminds him of northeastern Washington, where he once lived.
And the lack of sidewalks is a regular reminder of the challenging conditions for pedestrians in his neighborhood.
Many people say they are taking more walks since Gov. Jay Inslee issued a stay-home order last month to slow the novel coronavirus.
Noting its mental-health benefits, Inslee said taking a walk is one of the few outside activities allowed under the order — so long as people keep their distance. While walking close to home, people are getting a fresh view of their neighborhoods and imagining how they could be more pedestrian friendly.
Some safe-streets advocates are even calling on cities to take advantage of the big drop in vehicle traffic due to the outbreak and turn some streets over to walkers and bicyclists to give them more room to practice social distancing.
For Lingerfelt and his wife, Joyce, adding a second walk to their daily routine has helped them realize many of their everyday needs — shopping, visiting the bookstore, dining — are within walking distance.
Now retired, Lingerfelt, 79, and Joyce, 78, walk for about 25 minutes twice a day toward Brugger’s Bog Park in Shoreline with their 11-year-old Australian Shepherd, Hillary. “It feels good when we do it,” he said. “We’ll miss it if we stop.”
But getting to the park, which requires walking along streets that don’t have sidewalks, “is a little dicey,” he said, and it’s “uncomfortable to see how close cars come to people.”
“This neighborhood is not set up for walking,” he said. “Sidewalks would be a huge help, for starters. And crosswalks.”
Susan Whitaker, 70, and her husband, Harry, 72, often drive to Alki Beach to take walks because portions of their neighborhood in Burien don’t have sidewalks. After Seattle closed several parks and beaches last weekend to prevent crowding, the Whitakers are staying closer to home — and to the edges of the road as they’re walking.
“You have to be careful. People are often driving too fast in the neighborhood,” Susan Whitaker said.
In Seattle, new sidewalks must be at least six feet wide, but some are narrowed by overgrown plants, doors opening onto the sidewalk, sandwich boards, tree pits and bus stops, said Cathy Tuttle, who ran unsuccessfully for Seattle City Council last year on a platform that promoted dense, connected, walkable neighborhoods.
The six-foot right of way “disappears into something much smaller,” Tuttle said.
“We have a different sense of things we hadn’t seen before by slowing down to take a look at it,” she said. “Because people are walking more now, our eyes are getting opened to how much space is available. We have more clarity about how streets could be used in the future as places that serve us better.”
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways, a street safety advocacy group, has developed a list of suggestions to create space for pedestrians and bicyclists. They include allowing people to walk in the street on non-arterial roads, closing streets through parks to vehicles, and relabeling the push-to-walk buttons to indicate which signals change automatically without the need to touch a button.
Denver and Philadelphia have already expanded walking space by closing some streets to vehicles. Oakland, California, announced last Friday it will close 74 miles of streets to through traffic to make room for pedestrians and bicycles.
Seattle hasn’t closed any streets, but the city is extending the walk signal at some intersections to reduce wait times for people walking and biking. With vehicle traffic down by 60% in Seattle, adjusting the traffic signals won’t impact vehicle flow, the Seattle Department of Transportation said.
Seattle Neighborhood Greenways is recommending the city temporarily expand sidewalks this summer by turning some street space over to walkers, and reconfigure traffic signals to automatically give people the walk signal without having to push a button.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan is still considering whether to make room for walkers in some streets, a spokesperson said in a statement. Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who chairs the Seattle City Council Transportation & Utilities committee, declined to comment for this story.
Like any outdoor activity during the pandemic, talking a walk still has some risks.
Vanessa Garrison said she is a walking advocate “through and through,” but as the co-founder of GirlTrek, a national organization that focuses on addressing the root causes of illness in Black women through walking campaigns, community leadership and health advocacy, she is not promoting walking outside right now.
Black women suffer from chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes at higher rates than their white counterparts, studies show, and so can be at greater risk of serious complications from the coronavirus.
Black residents in Chicago, Milwaukee and the state of Louisiana are disproportionately testing positive for the coronavirus, though experts say the numbers remain too limited to draw sweeping conclusions.
“We took a hard stand that health and safety of our members is most important in saving lives of a population that is already vulnerable,” Garrison said. “Most of our walking programs are most effective in bringing people together in community to walk. Right now is not the time for that.”
Instead, GirlTrek — which has 600,000 active members across the nation — is promoting wellness resources like online fitness classes featuring yoga and African dance as well as mental-health services.