On why we walk

walking in the city
CC BY 2.0 Peter Miranda

From the congested streets of New York City to the small-town roads of southwestern Ontario, Katherine and Margaret delve into their different reasons for walking for this latest installment of Town & Country.

Margaret: The Easy Way

Most days of the week, the only “transportation” I use is my feet. If I don’t want to work at home, there are several cafes and restaurants close by. The yoga studio and the grocery store are on my block. If I need a longer break, the waterfront is about a mile from my house.

Growing up, I lived in a suburb where everyone drove, even for very short trips. Michigan’s harsh winters and our busy schedules contributed to this habit. But looking back, I wonder how many car miles my family might have saved if we had walked a bit more when it was nice out—a stroll to the dentist here, a trip to the pharmacy there.

Where I live now, short trips in the car are usually less convenient than walking, because parking is scarce and driving in even the outer boroughs of New York City involves frustrating levels of traffic. There’s plenty of research to back up the idea that people who walk or bike have better overall mental health, but it’s something I feel on a gut level when making the choice between walking somewhere or driving. Even when the weather is bad, it’s easier to put on a heavy coat or take an umbrella.

And of course, walkable neighborhoods encourage better physical health as people spend less time sitting in their cars. But health isn’t a primary reason I choose to do it: it’s just the easiest and fastest way to get where I need to go. It’s the obvious answer for most people who live in my neighborhood, and really for most people who live in NYC. Lower emissions and better health, although important benefits, are secondary outcomes.

When sustainability advocates talk about the need to cut down on emissions from driving, it’s clear to me that living in a walkable neighborhood is key, a subject Lloyd Alter has devoted many posts to. One of the best things about my neighborhood is how easy it is to walk nearly everywhere I need to go.

Katherine: The Ethical Way

walking with boys© K Martinko While reading Margaret’s thoughts on walking around New York City, I was struck by the difference in our situations. She walks because it’s the easiest way to get around. In the small town where I live, traffic and congestion are non-existent, except for 5 and 6 p.m. when people coming home from the local major employer line up at the stoplights for a few minutes longer than usual.

Driving is so easy that very few people walk. Often I feel like that one weird loner who insists on hauling her kids around town on foot, while everyone else schleps their kids in big SUVs and pick-up trucks.

This is big-car country, where concern about personal emissions quickly disintegrates into uncomfortable and passionate debates about one’s “right” to drive a big vehicle, and the ever-popular argument about “needing” four-wheel-drive for winter – this despite the fact that my husband has driven a small and low sports car for the past seven winters, proving the 4x4 argument to be false if you live in town.

At times I feel a bit self-conscious, bundled up in rain coats and boots, a baby on my back and two kids trailing behind, waiting to cross intersections where my friends wave cheerily from behind their windshields, probably wondering why I’m such a stickler for walking. And yet, I persist. Why? There are a number of reasons.

I walk with my kids because it builds character.

I sound just like my mother (which is rather alarming), but it’s true. I don’t want my kids to grow up assuming they can always get a ride. I want them to get comfortable with being outdoors in all kinds of weather and realize that it’s all about having the right clothes and the right mindset. So I do it to toughen them up.

We walk because it’s healthy.

I want them to learn to make time in their day for physical exercise, even if its purpose is just to get from point A to point B. A quick walk can clear one’s head and create the mental space needed for creative thinking and stress relief. Walking can be wonderfully inspiring and relaxing, and it’s also a time for conversations with my kids about how their day went and what they’re thinking about. It’s often during walks that the most interesting facts about their lives and relationships surface.

I walk with my kids because it’s ethical.

I know too much about the environmental degradation of our precious planet to be comfortable with driving everywhere. I don’t believe I have the right to burn fossil fuels to move my family several blocks away, just because I was too lazy to leave the house ten minutes earlier. It’s all about the guilt, but sometimes guilt is a good thing.

We walk because it’s safer.

Children who walk their neighbourhoods get to know them better. They pay attention to their surroundings and are less likely to get lost. I like to allow my kids to take the lead and show me how to get places, as a way of quizzing their knowledge. Statistically, walking is far safer than driving in terms of fatalities. It’s ironic that so many parents insist on driving their kids around in order to keep them safe from potential kidnappers, and yet car accidents are the leading cause of death for children in the United States between ages one and 19.

And so we walk, and will keep on walking, come snow, hail, heat waves, or wild winds.

Tags: Cities | Health | Walking


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