This photo begs the question: Would it be wise to create walkable communities before spending money to promote walking?
Moments before I snapped this picture of a larger-than-life San Joaquin County Supervisor Bob Elliott smiling down from a billboard, I watched as a little girl with a backpack carefully stepped across the mattress and box springs that blocked the sidewalk on Market Street just east of Aurora Street in downtown Stockton.
When it comes to walking this neighborhood, navigating discarded mattresses may be the least of the little girl’s problems. This is a rough part of town. Drug paraphernalia litters the gutters. Questionable characters inhabit the park across the street. Maybe a year ago, my car was broken into less than two blocks to the west.
Sure, there are sidewalks. But does that alone make this a walkable neighborhood?
Elliott serves on the governing board of the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, which commonly uses billboards to advertise its clean-air mission. And the district’s efforts don’t end with PR: Policies require employers of a certain size to encourage carpooling and other clean-air habits. Developers are required to build homes in a way that encourages less driving and more walking.
Sadly, the corner of Market Street and Aurora Street is not a blank slate.
If people in this neighborhood walk the streets, my guess is it’s not because they want to. They walk because they don’t have a choice. This billboard is targeted toward those who drive, and all the outreach in the world might not be enough for them to step out of their vehicles — at least, not here.