One of the most effective things you can do to reduce your environmental impact is to drive less. Every gallon of gasoline burned puts 24 pounds of pollution into our air! Of course we should work toward powering more cars with cleanly generated electricity or other alternative fuels, but we also need to move away from the assumption that whenever an adult goes somewhere, she goes by driving a car.
There are lots of other ways to get around! Depending on your physical abilities and the amount of stuff you’re transporting, you might be able to walk, run, bicycle, skateboard, roller-skate, ride public transit, or carpool.
I’ve been focusing on walking since November, when I lost the job that provided free public transit. Now that I have to pay for every bus ride, now that I have less money but more time, I’m motivated to take the bus less often.
This article is illustrated with photos I’ve taken while walking in the past few months in various parts of Pittsburgh’s East End. One of my favorite things about walking is that I can see things in more detail than when I zip by in a car!
- Exercise! Driving to all your destinations doesn’t save time if you also have to drive to the gym.
- Fresh air! Indoor places get stuffy at this time of year, when we’ve had the windows closed for months–and cars aren’t any better.
- Nature! Even in the city, you can walk under trees, watch birds and squirrels, and look for flowers coming up.
- Mindfulness and mental clarity! Walking can be a great way to clear your head, get more in tune with your senses, and process thoughts that have been swirling through your mind without reaching any resolution.
- Transition time! Walking can serve as a period of calm between one busy, social activity and another. I appreciate this especially when things are hectic at home and it seems hard to extricate myself, and then I finally get out to walk somewhere–even if I’m going to the supermarket, where I’ll have to make a lot of decisions amid a dazzling array of products and a clutter of cart-pushing customers, on the way there I have 10 minutes of peaceful walking.
- Friendliness! If you pass someone you know on the sidewalk, you can say hi or even stop for a longer conversation. It’s so much easier than spotting each other when you’re each driving a car.
- Flexible routes! You can walk the wrong way on a one-way street. You can take the stairs up that hillside. You can find your own path where there isn’t one. Pedestrians are allowed to do things cars aren’t.
- Body awareness! Walking for more than a few minutes at a stretch can help you notice that you’re holding your back funny, or something, and figure out how to move more effectively.
- Self-confidence! Getting someplace by your own power can really give you a boost.
- Conversation! If you bring a friend, talking while walking can be a great social experience. I find it a lot more comfortable than talking while one person is driving and the other is just sitting in the car.
- No parking! Honestly, driving to some nearby places takes as long as walking because once I get there, I have to find someplace to ditch the stupid car and sometimes even pay for it. This can get stressful, compared to just walking into the place.
I used to ride a bus from work to my 3-year-old Lydia’s preschool and then ride a bus home with her. Now, almost every day, I walk about a mile and a half from home to her school and then bring her home on the bus–or, once in a while, we decide to walk home. (You think a 3-year-old can’t walk a mile and a half, including ascending a 174-foot hill? Well, did you ever try?! You might be pleasantly surprised.)
It does cost more to take the bus even one-way from Lydia’s school ($2.50) than to drive there and back in our hybrid car. It takes more time, too: the round trip walking and taking the bus is at least an hour, whereas the round trip in the car takes 30-40 minutes depending on traffic.
But I need my exercise–which would take time and money one way or another–and I interact with Lydia so much more at the bus stop and on the bus than I do when I’m busy driving and she’s riding behind me in her rear-facing safety seat! Recently, we’ve been talking about Easter and reading Little House on the Prairie.
But it’s cold outside!
I know. I hate being cold, and I suffer from Raynaud’s Phenomenon, which makes my feet prone to getting so cold and numb that I may not be able to feel injuries. I also have arthritis in my feet, and it hurts more in cold, damp weather (but CBD oil helps a lot!).
I can bundle up, wearing double socks and good boots to keep my feet warm and dry. Then I can enjoy walking so much that I might even take a detour to check out something interesting, like fence-eating trees!
Also, exercising improves blood circulation so that you feel warmer! Walking is much more fun than standing in cold weather at a bus stop or sitting on a frigid steel bench!
We used the car more during this winter’s several spells of single-digit temperatures. But on typical chilly days, I’ve been out there walking!
(If you do find that your toes are white and cold to the touch, plug the bathtub, run water just until it starts to get hot, then stand in the water gently wiggling your toes. After a few minutes, drain the water, run some hotter water, and stand in that until your toes are pink again.)
Anyway, spring is coming! The weather will get warmer! So get into the habit of doing more walking now, so that you can get used to it before you start complaining about being too hot.
The other nice thing about spring is the longer hours of daylight. Back in December, I was walking over to get Lydia in full darkness at 5:15pm. Now it’s still daylight when she and I get home at 6:15!
Routine Walking and Special Adventures
Many of these pictures were taken on my way to get Lydia or while running errands around my neighborhood. But some of them are from a couple of long yet purposeful hikes I took this winter.
In January, I was cordially invited to attend a mandatory re-employment seminar Downtown–watching some videos about “what not to say in a job interview,” meeting with a career counselor about my resume, and so forth. I wore my nice office pants, but because of the heavy snow I wore leggings under them and wore my snowboots and down coat. The seminar lasted just long enough that I would have had to pay full price to take a bus home (if you travel again within 3 hours, it’s a “transfer” and costs only $1), and no buses going to my neighborhood were approaching the bus stop, where I didn’t want to hang around because of a big cloud of cigarette smoke . . . so I started walking, pausing at each bus stop to see if a bus was coming yet, but then I began to enjoy walking and just decided to walk all the way home! It’s about four and a half miles.
If you think you can’t walk four and a half miles, ascending 360 feet over the course of it . . . maybe you should try! Walk along the bus route so that you can stop and catch a bus if necessary. Maybe stop for a snack and a rest along the way.
In the 26 years I’ve lived in Pittsburgh, I have traveled through the crazy tangle of overlapping highways along the northern bank of the Monongahela River thousands of times by car or bus. This was only about the fifth time I’ve walked through there. It’s surprisingly pedestrian-friendly, with sidewalk on at least one side of most of the roads and several staircases or ramps connecting the vertical levels.
One of my favorite things about this journey was the series of different views of the Birmingham Bridge.
In early March, there was a community meeting about the public school district’s strategic plan at Pittsburgh Milliones School, in the Hill District neighborhood, which is on Herron Hill. I’m not sure why Herron Hill is called The Hill–it isn’t any taller or more prominent than the other main hills of the city, and Observatory Hill is actually the highest point in Pittsburgh–but it is a big hill.
I walked 3 miles to this meeting: across Schenley Park, across Oakland, and then up 236 steps, then the school’s steep driveway, and then a staircase inside! (Because of course, when you finally get up the mountain to where the school is, the school building is looming still higher up the mountain, with only the main entrance lobby touching down at driveway level!) I was very thirsty when I arrived and glad that I had brought my travel mug and that all public schools now have nice lead-free drinking fountains with bottle/mug filling faucets.
I didn’t take pictures from The Hill because it was dark by the time I got up there. But the view of South Oakland from the park was lovely!
“It must be nice to live in a pedestrian-friendly city. But most Americans live in places that aren’t designed for walking.”
Yeah, that sucks. That’s why I moved to the land of sidewalks, pedestrian bridges, and public staircases. But I haven’t always lived here.
From age 2 to 18, I lived in a sprawling oil-company town, where my family stubbornly walked or rode bikes some of the time, even though it was difficult. I can just barely remember walking along the shoulder of the highway with my mother (who was carrying my little brother in a backpack), waiting for a big gap between cars so that we could run across the road to the H&H grocery store, and then walking home carrying the bread as my mom carried other groceries. It must have taken a long time to walk with a little kid. It’s no wonder we usually drove to the store! But having walked even a few times meant that we knew we could.
As I grew to be old enough to walk alone but not yet old enough to drive, I learned more about how to do errands on foot. Our immediate neighborhood was only houses, the elementary school, and one tiny retail plaza with a convenience store–but if you could walk one mile, you could get to the supermarket; if you could walk two miles, you could get to a major shopping district with Kmart and two movie theaters and lots of smaller businesses, or in the other direction you could get to the mall. There were hardly any sidewalks, but in most places you could walk on the grass next to the road. I found shortcuts through schoolyards and parking lots, across the creek, through the quarry. I learned where to stop in for a free drink of water.
What sucked about it was not the walking itself–which had all the benefits listed above–or even the discomforts of walking on awkward surfaces or the difficulty of crossing a road where the traffic lights are miles apart. It was the feeling of being weird and alone and vulnerable as everyone else whooshed by in cars, the feeling of everyone staring at me when I walked into the store in a dripping raincoat because it was raining and I hadn’t just dashed ten feet from a parked car, the arguments with people who insisted I’d be safer in a car with a teenaged driver than walking home on my own two feet.
By all means, move to the walkable world if you have the option. Be like us and choose a smaller home and smaller yard in order to be closer to useful places and shared resources like city parks! I am much happier here!
But even if you live in the sprawliest suburbination, even if it’s undeniably true that no meaningful destination exists within a distance you could possibly walk . . . you deserve to get out of the car and move at your own pace, to see the sky, to feel the shifting breeze on your face.Get out of the car. Even if you have to drive to the strip-mall, park at the farthest edge sometimes and walk all the way across the asphalt savannah, feeling the open sky above you and the bounce of your sneakers moving you along with the miracle of bones and tendons and muscles working together. Coming back, maybe you’ll see that just beyond the bumper of your car is a stand of cattails, and as you venture over there to pull off the fluff and watch it fly away on the wind, you might realize that you’re standing on the edge of a little ecosystem, with ants carrying discarded popcorn into their hill and tadpoles hatching in an old fried-chicken bucket and tiny green plants beginning to sprout, and you might just find yourself wandering off into an Adventure.
Look at satellite photos of your area. What is that?! Can you go there and find out?
Get out of the car. Walk a little more this year. New paths are calling you!