He wants to reclaim towns for pedestrians

Dan Burden is playing in traffic. The lanky 50-something scurries into the busy main street of this western New York village, unfurling a metal tape measure as he goes. He gets a quick measurement of the distance from the curb to the double yellow line, then retreats to the sidewalk.

"Twenty-two feet," he says. "Plenty of room for a bike lane."

Mr. Burden is a guest here, invited by a group of citizens who want his advice on how to make their town a better place to walk and bicycle.

That's no mean feat. Americans now use automobiles for more than 90 percent of their daily trips. An average person travels more than 9,000 miles a year by car, compared with less than 4,000 miles four decades ago. The average driver spends 443 hours a year behind the wheel.

The result of this automotive addiction: a world where children are sometimes bused 300 feet to school because they can't safely cross eight-lane suburban boulevards. Two-hour commutes on clogged highways. Quaint main streets forsaken for windowless hulks set along acres of asphalt.

"America is out of sync with its values," Burden tells 100 people who have gathered for a slide presentation in a school cafeteria. "We say we're for kids. We say we're for safety. We say we're for families. And we build this ..." A slide comes up of a woman pushing a stroller along the shoulder of a busy road, a toddler with her walking inches from the traffic.

Children and the elderly suffer most when the automobile conquers a town, Burden says. In a car-dominated landscape, those who can't or won't drive suffer impaired mobility, recreation, and peace of mind.

But the damage can be repaired, he says. Our towns and cities can be refashioned into places where children bike to school and their parents walk to work, where picking up a gallon of milk doesn't have to burn a pint of gasoline.

Burden is seven years into a decade-long road show dedicated to spreading the word, like a postmodern Johnny Appleseed who plants ideas instead of seeds. In 1996 he set up Walkable Communities Inc., a nonprofit business that offers planning, traffic management, and community design. He travels 350 days a year - ironically, often by automobile - and vows to keep moving until 2006. So far he has visited 1,300 communities.

His early paths

This isn't the first time Burden has hit the road in the name of nonmotorized transportation. In 1971, he and his wife embarked on Hemistour, a National Geographic-sponsored bicycle expedition from Alaska to Argentina. They rode with one other couple, Greg and June Siple.

The Burdens had to drop out 18 months into the trip when Dan became ill in southern Mexico. But by then Burden and Greg Siple had conceived another grand adventure, a mass transcontinental ride to celebrate America's bicentennial. More than 4,000 people participated in what organizers called Bikecentennial.

Burden settled down some after that, going to work for the federal Department of Transportation and later as Florida's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. But he says a vacation to Australia in 1980 helped him realize that highways and shopping malls have led America astray.

"I started to walk the streets and wander through the villages and began to realize that Australia, every town I was in, was the America I remembered as a child," he says.

He's playing in traffic again

This time Burden has positioned 20 East Aurora residents in the street as if they were traffic cones. He's lined them up in an arc that sweeps forward from the front left fender of a parked car before curving to the curb at the end of the block. This, he explains, is a curb extension.

Widening the sidewalk at the end of a block prevents turning cars from cutting the corner and forces them to slow down. It also gives crossing pedestrians a vantage point that is unobstructed by parked cars and shortens the distance they have to walk across the intersection.

The knowledge Burden imparts is not innovative - any traffic engineer knows about curb extensions. What makes Burden special is how he spreads the word to non-professionals who share his vision for a pedestrian-friendly America.

"You need to know those kinds of terms to be able to speak," says Bruce Davidson, president of Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth.

Mr. Davidson wants to learn the lingo because in a few years the New York State Department of Transportation plans to tear up East Aurora's main street.

"We want to make sure that the project works in our favor, that there's no widening, that pedestrians come first and foremost," says Libby Weberg, a member of Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth.

If western New York hadn't snoozed through the most recent period of national prosperity, East Aurora might have more problems than it does. The west end of town already has a shopping plaza and its share of fast-food restaurants and drive-through banks.

But the village of 6,673 people also has a real Main Street, anchored by a genuine five-and-dime that sells Necco Wafers and other candies that haven't been seen in most places for years.

The town also has a movie theater straight out of "The Last Picture Show" - one screen, 650 seats, and real butter on the popcorn. Next door is Patina, a restaurant that serves new American cuisine in a restored 19th-century home.

"The things you've got, other people wish they had," Burden tells the 100 people assembled in the middle school cafeteria.

Still, this community has made some critical mistakes, he says. Building the new high school a mile outside town means more kids will ride the bus or drive instead of walking. And those who have no other transportation must walk home from after-school activities along a busy road with no sidewalk.

East Aurora's post office has moved out of the town center, too.

"They've stolen your post office," Burden admonishes. "You need to get your post office back."

In Burden's ideal community, traffic would roll along Main Street at 15 to 20 mph. The library, post office, and town hall would sit in an attractive downtown with parking on the street.

"Cities work best if we keep them compact," he says.

Burden wants to see housing in town, and most people living within walking distance of a "100 percent place" - such as a public square where people can gather. Nobody should live more than an eighth of a mile from a park. Bike lanes and walking paths would link the town's major attractions to one another and to neighborhoods. And there would be enough crosswalks so pedestrians didn't have to go more than 150 feet out of their way to cross.

East Aurora could be like that, Burden says, but only if the people who live there take some initiative. They need to persuade transportation officials to preserve Main Street as a focal point, not a thoroughfare. And they must encourage national chains to lay aside their plans for drive-through megastores and think outside the big box.

"If you do nothing," he warns, "then what you get is going to haunt you for the next 50 years."

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