Walking with an Old Dog
An old dog teaches a transportation planner one last lesson.
This is not a story about the bond between a woman and her dog. I think Mama Sadie liked me well enough during our 13.5 years together. Until her last days, she’d follow me from room to room. Until her last month, she stayed committed to sleeping on my bed.
But some dogs are people dogs and some dogs are dog dogs, and I knew very early in our relationship that Sadie was a dog’s dog. Humans were o.k., especially if they had cheese, but other dogs? They meant the world to her.
Most of the time, Sadie and I met other dogs while on walks because Sadie disliked riding in a car. Only minutes into a car trip, she predictably became an anxious mess. Play dates and dog parks weren’t usually worth the stress of driving there. Going on walks to meet other dogs defined much about Sadie’s quality of life.
Thus, this is a story about walking. And because this is a story about walking, this is also a story about infrastructure.
Luckily for Sadie, 11 years ago we moved into a nearly perfect neighborhood for a dog that loves dogs and hates riding in cars. Two different trail parks— one with trails that go for miles — could be reached within minutes from our home.
I’ve written before about my nearly perfect neighborhood for walking and its sidewalk-optional walking culture:
The street network favors the pedestrian. A grid of short blocks and frequent intersections offers direct connections and varied routes. … The sidewalks, on the other hand, appear to follow a design convention lost to time. Within three blocks of my home there are streets where asphalt meets grass; streets with a narrow sidewalk on only one side; and streets with curbs on both sides but no sidewalks. No streets have sidewalks on both sides. Many of the walkways that lead away from the apartment buildings connect directly to the street. …
Every day, as they have done for decades, the people in my neighborhood collectively create a network of shared streets. Four transportation elements — narrow streets, parked cars, stop signs, and “no parking” signs — make it work. (Searching for the City in the Self-Driving Car).
Sadie and I would walk to the trail parks twice a day, rain or shine. She loved meeting puppies and flirting with young males. She formed deep friendships and made her share of enemies and even an occasional arch nemesis. (The humans keep mental scorecards of dog world, and who is in with whom, to try to keep the peace).
When she caught sight of a friend, joy jolted through her body. Even old age couldn’t stop her from quickening her steps until we joined up with Pepper or Charlie or Bowmore or Eloise. When the humans insisted that the friends part ways, her disappointment dragged on the leash. Near the end of a lonely walk, she’d even try to greet a dog who, under normal circumstances, she would have avoided.
As Sadie crossed over her 16th year, however, the “nearly” in “nearly perfect for walking” came to the fore. By her last months, navigating the “nearly” became my constant preoccupation.
Sadie could tell me whether and where she wanted to walk. I let her lead, if I could, but eventually I had to start saying no. She was slow, and then very slow. But the bigger problem was her loss of agility. She couldn’t make the quick change in direction needed to get out of the way of a car.
Sadie’s life got progressively smaller, and the infrastructure failed her before her legs did.
First to go was the larger trail park that required crossing the busiest street in the neighborhood. By American standards, it is a small street, only two narrow lanes and one lane of parking. The speed limit is a slow 25 mph. But, still, the street has traffic, traffic that wasn’t just people in our neighborhood, but people passing through our neighborhood. And the sidewalks on the cross street don’t line up, so even an attempt at a quick crossing meant crossing two streets or ending up on a sidewalkless corner.
Then came weighing the time of day, especially as spring became summer. Should we leave early and deal with the morning rush of cars? Or go out later when the sun beats down on the asphalt? Should we walk on the side of the street with shade or the side of the street with the sidewalk?
We lived on a block that curved, but had no sidewalks. Between the nearest intersections and home, maintaining a line of sight for oncoming cars meant crossing our street twice. I had to be prepared to, and did, stand in the middle of the street waving my arms to alert a car.
In her last weeks, Sadie wasn’t strong enough to make it off our block to the nearest sidewalk. She still wanted to be outside, though, making the rounds of dog world. My generous neighbors invited us to walk on their lawns, saving her from being trapped in our yard. To them, I will be forever grateful.
Earlier this spring when Sadie and I still could still make it to the park, a woman drove by us on one of our walks, stopped her car, and got out to greet us. She said she had a dog whose old legs meant he moved just like Sadie. Her family and friends didn’t think she should take him out anymore. I wanted to say: go walk, walk with your dog, enjoy every walk to the last. But, I didn’t know where she lived. I didn’t know whether walking was safe.
Over 100 years ago, when the federal government and state governments in the United States first got involved in helping build modern roads, the winning policy argument wasn’t speedy travel for motor vehicles. The winning argument was relieving rural isolation. Those in charge recognized that reducing isolation was in the public interest.
Today’s transportation system still creates isolation, just in different forms. This is why transportation infrastructure and services can never be just another pay-per-use utility. Transportation-forced isolation is a type of imprisonment; ending transportation-forced isolation advances the well-being of individuals and society.
In reaching the miraculous age of 17, Sadie gave me a much more nuanced experience of what is means for a transportation system to serve all ages and abilities. Sometimes, nearly perfect isn’t good enough.
Mama Sadie is why my Green New Deal is safe traveling for all, even where this means sidewalks on both sides of the street!