Graphic showing prominent spots at Cal Poly with their distance.
Graphic showing prominent spots at Cal Poly with their distance. Credit: Kaley Schneider / Mustang News

Shelbi Sullaway is a mechanical engineering junior and Mustang News opinion columnist. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Mustang News. 

In my hometown, I have to cross windy freeway overpasses and awkwardly wait at crosswalks with cars passing at 50 mph just to get to my favorite coffee shop. Like most suburban cities in America, it is nearly impossible to get around without a car and very unpleasant to travel by foot. I remember the intense feeling of freedom I had my first week of college. 

After 16 years of being driven around everywhere and another two years of commuting far distances to get from place to place, I was somewhere where I didn’t even need a car. Everything I needed was a walk away; all of my friends were only a few doors down.

College sometimes feels like an oasis for young adults that have spent 18 years in the same community with the same people. But what makes college so different, so special? One reason is that college campuses are walkable spaces. 

“Walkability,” a concept that has recently gained popularity on social media, describes a space which supports safe and convenient access to desired people and places. The majority of college students spend their adolescence being driven everywhere, living a car ride away from friends and favorite places. In later adulthood, many return to car-based cities, commuting between home and work. College is a place unlike these two modes of living, where young adults are surrounded by peers and every necessary amenity is within walking distance.

Campuses are hubs of diverse student life and activity, with the hustle-and-bustle reminiscent of a densely packed city. The walkable planning of college campuses is, in part, what makes this time in our lives so enjoyable.

To explore this idea, I spoke with Dave Amos, a city and regional planning professor who also happens to have an impressive Youtube channel with over 500,000 subscribers, City Beautiful.

Amos described a possible reason why walkable environments speak to us. 

“Our living in a car-oriented world is not old, it’s new. For us, it’s hard to understand because we grew up in a time where there were always cars. But for literally thousands of years before that, we were living in settlements where we walked everywhere,” he said. “Many of our cities on this planet were designed well before cars, and they work. They are well-designed.”

When first learning about walkability, not only did I find that walkable cities were places I would prefer to live, but they are worth advocating for. 

“[Climate change is] part of your generation’s experience, dealing with this sort of catastrophic, global event. Now we are seeing that [emissions from] transportation are one of the largest sources,” Amos said.

Professor Amos emphasized the power of our voices on social media and the power that the people have when it comes to the building of cities. 

In one class, Amos gives his students the option to create a meme about city planning as an alternative to a Canvas discussion post, believing it is important “to get into the practice of thinking about how [we] can spread the word on social media.” 

Ultimately, as much as city-planning circles online like to criticize the car, oil and gas industries, there is no villain or hero when it comes to the way cities are designed. Local government is elected by the people. Developers see what they are building as a product they are trying to market to the general public. Despite the existing structures we build around, the people have a large say in the direction of how cities are built moving forward, so public awareness is everything.

San Luis Obispo, a classic “college town,” provides many great examples of walkability and sees continuous improvement in pedestrian features, especially bike paths. The simple aspect of having a college in a town and a young population is enough to make that city more walkable. 

We have made cars our ticket to freedom in this country. But why do we have to need them? Why are cars the center of our cities’ focus and not people? Colleges are models of making the most of our space and our resources while still providing the resources for residents to thrive. I think more cities could absolutely benefit from the model of colleges and college towns.