Take a walk with Dan Burden, and he predicts you'll never take a walk the same way again.
"It teaches you to see," he said.
Burden is a national expert on walkability, the concept of designing streets to encourage healthy walking and keep pedestrians safe. On Monday, he showed 40 Sacramento planners, activists and senior citizens how to see a part of south Sacramento the way that he does.
"Let's see if we can count how many things are wrong with this intersection," he challenged the group, at the worse-for-wear corner of Fruitridge Road and Mendocino Boulevard.
The so-called "walking audit" of the area was a joint effort by AARP and local nonprofit WALKSacramento to educate residents and convert them into advocates for the walkability cause.
Walkable streets benefit everyone, said Bob Planthold, board chairman of California WALKS, a statewide organization based in Oakland. But senior citizens who have the time, the civic inclination and the interest in safe streets are the most effective cheerleaders, he said.
"Oh, man, this is sure accessible," exclaimed Planthold, who walks with crutches due to childhood polio, as he approached the buckled pavement on Mendocino. "If you levitate."
Burden is co-founder of the Walkable and Livable Communities Institute, a Washington state nonprofit dedicated to transforming city environments. Slapping down his trusty measuring tape, Burden determined that this residential side street is 60 feet wide an unnecessarily ample width that encourages drivers to speed, he said.
The walkers, who included planners from Caltrans and the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, traversed more than 1.5 miles around the Fruitridge Community Center, spotting problems. Narrow sidewalks. Intersections without crosswalks. Very little buffer between pedestrians on sidewalks and cars whizzing by.
On residential and wide Del Norte Boulevard, the walker manning the radar gun clocked a red sedan streaking by at 38 miles per hour.
Although the Fruitridge neighborhood was under the microscope, event organizers said these kinds of problems typify many neighborhoods in Sacramento.
It's not just safety that interests Burden it's also aesthetics. He described the potential transformation of roads from "strips" to "villages," centers of social activity and commerce with wide sidewalks, trees, bike lanes and moderate traffic speeds, the kinds of places people like to walk.
"We have to find these pockets, and if they don't exist we have to make these pockets to bring back the life of the neighborhood and the value of property," Burden said.
Design streets with just cars in mind, he said, and that's what you get just cars.
"A lot of what they say makes sense," said Hathor Woods, 62, an AARP member from the Hollywood Park neighborhood who uses a cane but walks daily.
Voices of people like Woods will matter in 2012 as AARP steps up its work to promote walkable streets, and as Sacramento and neighboring counties finalize a 28-year update of the region's Metropolitan Transportation Plan.
As the U.S. population ages, AARP wants to get ahead of that trend and ensure there are walkable streets to accommodate older Americans, said spokeswoman Christina Clem. AARP intends to provide more training to residents who want to take up this cause and urge them to speak out.
The organization seemed to have a convert in Woods, who said she'd like to attend upcoming meetings on the transportation plan. "I would like to see something like this done in other neighborhoods," she said.