One cure for pandemic doldrums: Walking every street in your city
By Mitch Smith
Walton Road does not get many pedestrians.
The street, about the length of a high school track, separates a vast Walmart parking lot from a field of soybean stubble. There is so little traffic that semitruck drivers park there to rest. And though there is a sidewalk, no one had bothered to clear the snow off it for several days after a storm last month.
But Walton Road was the only public street in Peoria, Illinois, that Mary Hosbrough and Jennifer Jacobsen-Wood had not walked. So, before dawn on a Friday in February, the pair set out through the slush to conquer that stub of concrete on the fringes of the city limits, pausing only to take a few photos and return a runaway shopping cart to a Walmart corral.
Hosbrough and Jacobsen-Wood, longtime friends who began a quest to stroll down every Peoria street just before COVID-19 hit, were among thousands of Americans who wound up countering pandemic boredom with long walks. Most people were content to meander through their own neighborhoods or jog on nearby trails. But a select few took it much further, marching down every last street in their towns and mapping their progress — a pursuit that they said eased virus doldrums, brought a sense of purpose and helped them appreciate long-overlooked hometown sights.
Covering every street in a city by foot is not a new idea. It has been attempted repeatedly over the years, to great fanfare in places like New York City and San Francisco, and with little note in other parts of the country. But as the pandemic upended routines, kept people close to home and limited options for fun, the pursuit took on new life and meaning. All across the country — as chronicled in local news stories from Brockton, Massachusetts, and Corvallis, Oregon, to Branford, Connecticut, and Cedar Falls, Iowa — Americans set out to walk or run down every road, street, avenue, circle, terrace and boulevard in the places where they lived.
James Chevalier, who developed and manages CityStrides, a website that many in the every-street cohort use to track their progress, said that about 32,000 of its 43,000 total users joined the site since the beginning of 2020, around the time that scientists discovered COVID-19. Worldwide, more than 1,500 CityStrides users have completed the task of walking or running down every street in a city since the start of 2020, making up three-quarters of all the users who have done so since the site launched in 2013.
“Those people that found it because of the pandemic talked to other people, and everybody is talking to each other about what they’re doing to stay sane,” said Chevalier, who created CityStrides as he tried to run every street in Holyoke, Mass., a feat he did not finish before moving to another town.
The Pedestrians in Peoria, as Hosbrough and Jacobsen-Wood took to calling themselves on the Facebook page where they chronicled their walks, covered about 1,247 miles on 170 walks over 23 months before finishing their circuit last fall. Though they have mostly moved on to hiking nature trails, they have gone back to Peoria’s streets a few times to check off small roadways, like Walton Road, that were newly added to CityStrides.
Their walks, sometimes lasting several hours and covering as many as 20 miles, took them through parts of Peoria they knew well and to areas they had never been before. They found a surprising abundance of war memorials and scenic green spaces, as well as a burial site for Civil War veterans that is now a parking lot for a muffler store.
“I did a lot of the research and writing, and that was a nice distraction and something else to focus on rather than COVID,” said Jacobsen-Wood, a librarian, who shared historical information about the sights they encountered on their Facebook page.
The walks included gratifying moments, like when one of their 2,700 Facebook followers recognized them at a bar and bought them drinks. There were somber days, like when they came across a sidewalk memorial and met the family of a young man who had been shot dead. And there were scary encounters, like when a pit bull charged at them.
There were perks to pandemic walking, too. Justin Robbins, who walked every street in Longmont, Colorado, in late 2020 and early 2021, said the pandemic seemed to inspire more ambitious Christmas decorations in his city.
“People went big — bigger than they typically would,” said Robbins, a software engineer who had grown bored walking the same route near his house, and who credited his 586-mile tour of Longmont with improving his physical and mental health.
But the pandemic also brought about an increase in reckless driving and, in some places, record numbers of pedestrian deaths. Crashes killed more than 6,700 pedestrians in 2020, up about 5% from the estimated 6,412 the year before, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. The Peoria police said there had not been an increase in pedestrian deaths there.
Hosbrough and Jacobsen-Wood, who are 50 and who grew up in the Peoria area, said they saw their walks as a way to counter what they considered to be a pervasive but unwarranted fatalism in how some Peorians viewed their city. Local journalists sometimes joined them on their strolls.
Hosbrough and Jacobsen-Wood were insistent that they would go down every road in every neighborhood. And without glossing over Peoria’s flaws, they said they tried to focus more on the city’s history (like the women’s club near the river that was converted into a hospital during the 1918 flu pandemic), its amenities (like the downtown alley filled with murals) and its surprising delights (like the plastic coyote stationed without explanation near a golf course).
The pair came away with some critiques about the city they love. Sidewalk coverage in Peoria is spotty. Drivers can be oblivious to pedestrians. And the streets in some newer, fancier neighborhoods can seem like paths to nowhere, with plenty of sidewalks but no easy connection to other communities.
Indeed, after two years of walking every street, they reached a verdict: For all the city’s charms, Peoria is not very walkable.