Take a Walk


in Archive


A person who eschews a car and walks by choice today seems willfully archaic, as curious a specimen as someone choosing to play professional football in a leather helmet.

Why would you choose to walk when the gods of modern technology have provided us with cars? We’re in an age of rapid movement, and walkers seem to be in no hurry; many are known to stop to talk to others, or to admire some streetside oddity that’s captured their attention. “English has no positive word for lingering on the street,” wrote British transportation consultant John Whitelegg. “In English, slowness in general is often treated with pity (a slow learner, retarded) with derision (sluggish) or with suspicion (loitering).”

Other languages are more open to this. “Latin yields the wisdom of slowness — festina lente (make haste slowly),” notes Whitelegg (his real name). “Italian dignified it with largo or offers the radiant serenity of dolce fa ninete (literally, sweet doing nothing); while French provides the subversive flirtation of the flâneur, the dusky-eye pauser, stroller, and observer.”

Part of the American perception of walking as being slow, it should be admitted, is based on irrefutable fact. Walking is slow, compared to most other means of transport. The average walker moves at about three or three-and-a-half miles per hour. An especially zippy walker might do a bit more than four miles per hour hoofing across town. That’s roughly the same speed your car will move when you put it into drive while leaving your foot off the accelerator. Walking is undeniably slower.

So we often choose not to walk because we believe we don’t have the time. We need to be across town in twenty minutes. It would take an hour to walk that. Are you mad?

But that’s only part of it. The car has also distorted how we perceive distance, and the time it takes to traverse it. And if we gave a little more thought to the relationship between time and means of transport, and how we allocated time, we might choose to go on foot more often.

Naturally, a mile is a mile, whether traveled by foot or by car. But in the 1960s, the urban planner Melvin Webber came up with the notion of “the elastic mile.” He noted that one’s perception of what constitutes a mile varies depending upon one’s speed, and that perception is the inverse of what you might expect — the faster you go, the longer the physical distance seems. People invariably estimate the distance traveled in a car to be longer than it actually is. So it’s not just the actual exertion of walking a mile that dissuades many from taking to foot; there’s also a perception derived from car travel that a mile is longer than it actually is.

This observation was backed up by a more recent study conducted by the University of California Transportation Center. Researchers asked people at a Los Angeles shopping mall to estimate the distance from where they stood to City Hall. The respondents were classified into three categories — active travelers who walked or biked, transit riders who traveled chiefly by bus, and passive travelers, who were reliant on cars. The active travelers estimated that city hall was 11.5 miles way. (It was actually nine miles by car, or 10.5 by transit). The transit riders estimated 17 miles, and the car drivers, on average, said 26 miles.

Furthermore, our perception of distances can be elastic depending on what’s motivating us to walk. Studies have shown that when we’re errand-oriented, we won’t walk very far — that is, say, if we’re on a mission to pick up a coffee cream or the like. But when we’re out walking for recreation, we’ll willingly walk farther, and the distance doesn’t seem as long. A mile hike to the convenience store is, subjectively speaking, longer than a mile stroll through a park.

How to reset our perceptions to encourage us to walk more place more often, and in the bargain better our health and the planet?

A couple of ideas have been floated on this. First, there’s the concept of “effective speed,” put forth in a 2010 paper published in the Journal of Urban Health entitled “Speed Kills: The Complex Links Between Transport, Lack of Time and Urban Health.”

Author Paul Joseph Tranter outlined “a paradox whereby ‘faster’ modes of transport lead to a loss of time.” He reached this conclusion by looking not just at the time it takes to travel a set distance by a certain mode, but calculating “all the time costs associated with a particular mode of transport.”

For those who drive cars, for example, foremost among these hidden costs is time spent at work just to pay for an automobile, insurance, maintenance, parking, and fuel. When this is all factored in, walking has one of the best “effective speeds,” because it has “virtually nil time costs apart from the time spent walking.”

This doesn’t help much for the great majority of Americans who already own a car. Using it to drive a half-mile appears to be free when you’re already making monthly payments and have a half-tank of gas sitting at risk of evaporation. Also, “effective speed” is a bit theoretical and abstract. Good luck explaining this to someone who grew up viewing their car as a personal prosthetic device.

But there might be another calculation that’s more accessible. This is the one I’ve worked out on my own. It applies to foot as well as bike, but I’ll use a bike example because it’s a trip I do often and the numbers are easy to convey.

I live in uptown New Orleans, about four miles from the French Quarter. I go to the Quarter two or three times a week, most often by bike. I often tell friends — probably too often, in fact — that making that trip by bike is actually a time-saving activity compared to driving, even though my watch tells me it takes me longer than by car.

Here’s my reasoning: at my relaxed rate, it takes me a half hour to get to my favorite bar on my bike, give or take two or three minutes. Getting to the same destination by car, door to door, takes anywhere from 15 to 25 minutes — it varies widely, depending on commuter traffic, whether the lights are conspiring against me, if there’s a film being shot downtown (and lately, the answer seems to be “always”), how quickly I can find a parking spot, and how far I have to walk from where I park to the bar’s front door.

The same is true for streetcar or bus — no one has ever accused Mussolini of running transit in New Orleans. (Unpredictability annoys me tremendously, and so I’ll admit just the bike’s consistent travel time is a major draw for me.) But for the sake of argument, let’s say it takes me an average of 20 minutes to get downtown by car. Which means it takes me ten minutes longer to get there by bike.

Simple math would suggest that a round trip, on average, takes a total of twenty minutes longer by bike than by car. So how is it that saving time? Because of this: I’m getting an hour’s worth of exercise — which I would normally try to fit in — with a modest investment of only twenty additional minutes. What a great return!

Using a bike, in my mind, is simply a more efficient use of my time than driving, at least for one of the more frequent trips I make. And that’s for a ten mile round trip. If it were less — when it’s a two-mile trip, or a 30 to 40 minute trip on foot — I often walk, which provides the same efficiencies. I try to walk five miles every day, and if I can work this into my regular course of business, all the better.

This, I’ll admit, all takes place under pretty ideal circumstances. New Orleans is quite walkable and bikeable — it’s flat, the weather is usually agreeable, it’s reasonably compact, and it’s laced with parallel roadways, which means you needn’t walk or bike along busy arterials. You’ll have to consider other factors depending on where you live — distances may be too long to be traversed by foot in many car-dependent communities, too hazardous by bike, and the accommodation for walkers (sidewalks, crosswalks) may be poor to non-existent. Much of the suburban and exurban landscape today is designed for the exclusive use of cars, and traveling it by foot can be dangerous and soul-wrenching. (The longest mile is a mile that crosses parking lots then runs along a high-speed roadway with a crumbling, narrow sidewalk.)

It strikes me that a good model for a personal transportation regimen is the flexitarian diet. In this, you don’t give up meat. You just move it down the list.

It makes sense to follow this approach on transit diets. Walk when you can. Bike if it’s a bit further. Drive if you must.

Try it. You may find that it’s more agreeable than you’d imagined. • 23 June 2014