Man aims to help Americans walk his way


Dan Burden talks to participants during a pedestrian walking tour outside an authentic five-and-dime store along Route 20 in East Aurora, N.Y., Oct. 17, 2002. Burden travels the U.S. giving lectures in small towns and villages on how to make them better places to walk and bicycle.

(AP Photo/Don Heupel)
Published: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 5, 2003 at 1:00 a.m.
EAST AURORA, N.Y. - Dan Burden is playing in traffic.
The lanky 58-year-old 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."
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 to 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 in 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, health and peace of mind.
The damage can be repaired, Burden 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.
"There are the places that were built and intended to be built as bedroom communities, and you can't find a town center, you can't find a real store, you can't find anything. But you don't have to choose to live there," Burden says. "What I have learned is where a lot of America has been destroyed, so much of it is waiting to be recrafted and perfected."
Burden is seven years into a decade-long roadshow 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.
America led astray This isn't the first time Burden has hit the road in the name of non-motorized transportation. In 1971, he and his wife Lys 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 came down with hepatitis 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 then as Florida's bicycle and pedestrian coordinator. But he credits a vacation to Australia in 1980 for helping 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," Burden says.
Spreading the word 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.
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 Aurora Citizens for Smart Growth member Libby Weberg.
Growing up fast Because he's late, Burden has consented to being driven to his next appointment. At a four-way stop, he sees a young child pedaling a tiny bicycle across the intersection.
"When I see that I know there is something very good about a community," Burden says.
If western New York hadn't snoozed through the most recent period of national prosperity, East Aurora might already be a suburban bedroom community to Buffalo, about 20 miles to the northwest. The west end of town already has its share of fast-food restaurants, drive-through banks and a shopping plaza.
But the village of 6,673 people also has a real Main Street, anchored by a genuine five-and-dime that sells Necco Wafers, Lemon Heads and two dozen other candies that haven't been seen in most places for years.
"It's the kind of store we wish never went away," Burden says.
Thanks to Paul Bandrowski, a developer who began investing here about three years ago, Main Street also has a movie theater straight out of "The Last Picture Show" - one screen, 650 seats, mahogany ticket booth and real butter on the popcorn. Next-door is Patina, a New American restaurant in a restored 19th-century home and another of Bandrowski's properties. "The things you've got, other people wish they had," Burden tells the 100 people assembled in the middle school cafeteria on a Thursday evening.
Offering advice It's Saturday morning at the Aurora Theater, and Burden is delivering the finale of his three-day visit - telling the people who invited him here what they can do to make their town a better place.
"If you do nothing," he warns, "then what you get is going to haunt you for the next 50 years."
An elderly woman stands up and addresses the audience. She says her name is Dorothy Clough, and she has lived on Oakwood Avenue for about 35 years. Now that she and her husband are too old to care for their big house, Clough fears having to leave East Aurora for a smaller home in a town that has relegated walking to shopping mall corridors and health-club treadmills.
"I want to stay a part of the action," she says. "You've given me hope."

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