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How Walking Can Change the World

I’m a lazy human being, I admit it. But I still manage to walk more than anyone I know (except maybe my mom, she’s pretty much superwoman, exercise edition). Because I’m lazy, I’m not going to rewrite the original version of this post – which was supposed to be on fashionable rain boots – which Blogger seems to have gobbled up without leaving a single crumb behind. Anyhow.

I have a personal belief that walking is its own form of activism. Only the poor, crazy and disabled seem to do it anymore, crazy including “activists” like myself. Walking makes streets safer because it puts more eyes on the street, it obviously reduces pollution (every time you walk you’re doing your fellow (wo)man a favor, not to mention all the other flora and fauna by reducing emissions) and the more people do it, the easier it becomes. It’s somewhat discouraging to look around and see that a lot of city (and even town, my goodness you lazy townspeople who can’t walk in a place that requires only 30 minutes to walk across) streets have gone completely over to the dark side. Cars rule and the sidewalks are mostly empty. Drivers are so impatient and sure of their place at the top of the hierarchy that they cut pedestrians off to make quick right turns, honk at people walking in parking lots or other places they don’t think walkers should be (happened to me) and pull up so close to pedestrians on the crosswalk while they wait to make left turns that their bumper is very nearly touching the walker.

Near the home I just moved out of, there was a Top Ten Pedestrian-Car Collision Intersection. You don’t have to be a traffic planner to figure out what’s the problem with this intersection: the light, and especially the walk light, is too short. When you live in a cold/hot climate, pedestrians don’t like to wait too long at intersections. The climate here is okay in spring and autumn, and often really not okay the rest of the year. This intersection is commonly used by students and the elderly, both of which live in neighborhoods near it and cross it frequently to get to the grocery store and bus stop on one side. The walk light is generally on for about 3 seconds before it starts flashing the “don’t walk” signal. Normally, you could still make it if you’d just seen the “walk” light blink off. At this intersection, you might make it if you’re fast. If you’re a senior, or believe you can walk at a normal pace, or worse, you’re an immigrant who doesn’t understand the traffic lights and the crazy drivers (which I’ve seen once, and nearly hit in my car) you might end up getting hit or merely stranded on the median. Yet, this light has not been fixed. I don’t personally know how many pedestrians have died at this particular intersection, but as mentioned, it’s in the local top ten for people being hit. I consider it a public service to wait for the elderly or cross with them at intersections like this. I suspect they disproportionately are the victims of aggressive driving and poor traffic planning. It seems like it wouldn’t be too difficult to install an extra button for people who need a longer walk light, especially considering Canada’s aging population. With more people walking there is more awareness about obstacles to safety and convenience for pedestrians.

Another issue is that walking has become something of a lost “skill”. Obviously people aren’t falling all over trying to remember how to walk, but they’ve lost some idea of it, and also of its value. My sister can’t even properly estimate distance on foot anymore, and I suspect she’s not alone. What’s actually less than a five minute walk is now “a long way.” It can take half an hour to travel 10 km in my city by car during high traffic, high road construction times. Walking is definitely not as efficient, because it would probably take at least an hour and 40 minutes to walk that far, but it’s easy to imagine a brave cyclist could get where (s)he needed to go a lot faster by using paths only open to them. Waiting on the bridge through several red/green light transitions isn’t all that uncommon during summer traffic in my city. A cyclist can go up the separated lane also used by pedestrians. Even a pedestrian might nearly beat a car across the bridge in those conditions. I also frequently take the bus. I’ve found that it’s not always that much faster than walking once you factor in how long you wait for the bus and the circuitous route it takes. As a result, I often walk somewhere and bus back only because I’m too tired to walk back (did I mention I’m lazy?). A good example is going from my local university to the downtown library, or the downtown bus mall, which is right next to it. This is 1.5 km on foot. That’s about 15 minutes. The bus probably takes 5 minutes. If you have to wait 10 or more minutes for the bus, you might as well walk (a bit more effort and you won’t need to go to the gym that day). Cycling may well be faster, but you obviously get a lot more of the benefit there for longer distances. I don’t personally do much cycling because I worry about my bike being stolen and about aggressive drivers running me down or honking at me, etc. It’s just not worth the hassle so far.

As a final note, your chance of seeing a fat spring goose strutting on the grass or on the river’s remaining ice decreases steadily from walking on up through cycling, bus and car. Often getting there faster means losing all the pleasure of the journey.

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