Aug 112023
Why I Walk

This post first ran on my personal blog, BikeWalkBake Barb, where I’ve been chronicling my walking habits. Since I’ve been writing about multimodal transportation here, I thought I’d add the post to these archives as well. Walking, like riding my bike, lets me move at a human pace. I’m describing my thoughts and experiences as I move using my two legs; references to walking aren’t meant to leave out people who use a mobility assistive device that enables them to experience the world, which is why I refer to the benefits of walking or rolling.

Walking gives me the gift of time for human connections and connections with the natural world we all inhabit. I meet dogs and cats, smile at neighbors and strangers, smell whatever’s in bloom right now so I know certain stretches of road as “that place that smells so sweet right now” or “near the coffee roastery”. 

I work in active transportation so it’s natural for me to think about the benefits of walking or rolling, but I think first and foremost before any health or environmental or economic benefits it’s simply this opportunity for connection with another human being with no glass and steel between us, and this recognition of shared life energy with the whole world around us, energy you can only feel if you’re out in it, not looking at it on a screen or through a windshield.

I go for walks of various lengths, alone or with my husband, in loops around the neighborhood or through the nearby Squaxin Park (named for the people whose lands I am living on) or downtown to the farmers’ market, walking along the water and watching for seals and birds on the way there. 

We started going for daily walks early in the pandemic. I work one of the privileged jobs that let me stay home while other people went out into the world so I would have access to food and power and the Internet and (eventually) toilet paper. I did a lot more cycling than walking back then for my work commute, back when I went somewhere else to stare at a computer. Now I stare at the computer in the office we created in a bedroom, with bird feeders hanging in the tree outside the window. With fewer reasons to go somewhere, walking is my mode (just don’t tell my bikes that; I still love to ride and will always prefer human movement pace over vehicular).

We walked before the pandemic, of course. When we lived in Spokane we had what I considered a perfect location: 3/4 of a mile one direction to Rockwood Bakery, 3/4 of a mile the other direction to The Filling Station and South Perry Pizza. In other words, coffee and treats either way. We had sidewalks the whole way to these destinations, the greenery that went with living in a Tree City USA in the part of town where people had the money and time to care for trees planted long ago, the disposable income that made it easy to suggest going for a walk to get something sweet or savory on a Saturday.

When we moved to Seattle, at first we lived right in the heart of downtown. We walked to get groceries at Pike Place Market or Target; we walked to restaurants; we walked to transit stops to make longer journeys. Since it was Seattle and we lived close to the water every trip involved an uphill, sometimes a steep one.

We then lived in the Lake City neighborhood. We walked to Lake City Way where we could get some of the best sushi in Seattle, falafel at the gyros place, coffee and German pastries (yes, there’s a recurring theme to my walking destinations….). We could walk to a tiny pocket park down the street from us, not big enough to offer a real respite from urban sounds but still a green space free from vehicular traffic.

The next Seattle home was in the Top Hat neighborhood (name thanks to one of those vernacular architecture buildings shaped like a top hat). This corner of unincorporated King County had no sidewalks in our part, although the new Greenbridge development with apartments and townhouses and the all-important coffee shop and little restaurant were close enough to walk to. Pre-pandemic we didn’t go for many walks. A far more typical activity on a weekend entailed a bike ride to downtown Burien for coffee and groceries, maybe a stop at the bookstore or yarn shop. 

My office at the time was in an old brick building in Pioneer Square. I loved going for walks from that starting point. In one direction I could go to a tiny park with a waterfall and little tables I could sit at with my coffee or lunch, the sound of running water almost drowning out the city soundscape around me. In another direction I walked in Chinatown-International District, where sidewalks always bustled with activity. I could go to Uwajimaya for groceries and if I went far enough up the hill I got to smell the fortune cookie factory’s sweetness perfuming the air. Or I could head toward the waterfront, watch the ferries coming into dock, and see the tourists going on the Seattle Underground tours.

All this walking for transportation comes as something of a surprise, to be honest. I grew up out in the country where “going for a walk” would have meant walking along the shoulder of the county road next to an irrigation ditch, listening to the whir of grasshoppers or the rumbling of a tractor in the fields of wheat surrounding our house. We had acreage to play in with a creek running through it, horses in the pasture, trees to climb, the “Freehouse Treehouse” my brothers built in the honey locust, a hammock hanging in the crabapple tree where I read for hours—what could I find on a walk that would be better than all this? We didn’t have neighbors nearby so I didn’t walk to a friend’s house to play; that kind of outing always involved parental chauffering. I didn’t walk to school; our house was the last one with kids before the bus reached the school on a route that started very early in the morning at the farthest farmhouses.

When I was 12 or 13 we moved to suburban Spokane Valley, with no sidewalks and miles of curving subdivision with houses on half-acre lots. I went out for track so I ran to train. I might occasionally see a couple of moms out for a walk with their dogs but that wasn’t a common sight.

All of this shaped the expectations I grew up with. Namely, I wasn’t expected to walk for transportation or to get to friends’ houses. I had no parks nearby to walk to where I might hang out, no convenience store to get a treat unless I wanted to walk a 5-mile round trip from that suburban house down roads with no sidewalks (which Younger Sister and I did do a time or two, the siren song of sweet summer treats too loud to resist). 

I have new insights thanks to a presentation for the Global Walkability Correspondents Network, of which I’m a member. Ann Bueche shared the framework she developed to think about what contributes to walkability, based on her experiences living in cities around the world. She includes this idea of expectations on her list of sociocultural factors, with your childhood experiences establishing the earliest understanding or awareness of walking as a routine fact of life.

These expectations are partly a function of land use decisions that placed houses far from goods and services, thus supporting and deepening car dominance. If there’s nothing to walk to, you’re only walking for exercise. And if there’s nothing to experience while you’re walking, if you don’t have the feeling of having destinations you can reach, you’re likely to walk a shorter distance.

Economic class and what represents success play a role in how those land use decisions keep happening. My parents both grew up poor during the Depression. Owning a home with land around it where they could raise food meant security in more than one way. They ended up with six children; at the point where they had four, they moved out to that country home in Lewiston and planted a huge garden. They wouldn’t have dreamed of moving from that into someplace where houses stand only a few yards away from each other, and they had the money to choose. They and people like them create the market for those inefficient land uses.

Expectations about walking also arise as a function of parental rules and comfort levels with sending kids out the door to do things on their own. These are a function of their own generational experiences and what they can expect about their children’s personal safety based on any number of factors, including their race. I’ve been a free-range mom, which is easier for me as a woman of European ancestry than for someone raising Black or Brown children in the US today. My mom was the same, although she confessed to me years later that she was nervous about moving to Spokane because it was so much bigger than Lewiston, where she had been born and lived so much of her life.

As a young woman living in an apartment in Spokane’s Browne’s Addition with no car, I walked a lot: to get groceries at the Rosauer’s, to reach the transit center to get to my job sites working as a temp, to get into downtown to meet a friend after work. I took a self-defense class at the Y, walked assertively, made eye contact with every passerby, and played a game I dubbed “Eyewitness”: Describing an approaching man to myself the way I would have to describe them later in court if they assaulted me. Doesn’t that sound fun?

I’ve lost that hyperalert edge, possibly in part as a result of aging out of the period of my life where strange men looked at me more than once, or at all. I look people in the eye now to smile and nod. As I walk I look around me and, lo and behold, there’s always something interesting to see. Every corner or flowering bush or extra-tall tree is its own destination. We bought a home surrounded by nearby neighbors, with transit service only a block away and bike lanes and trails nearby. It’s a far more space-efficient location than the homes I grew up in, as a matter of deliberate choice. I think of this walkability and bike/transit-friendly location, this foundation for my future transportation independence when I can’t drive safely, as the gift I give my children.

Walking, whether alone with a podcast or holding hands with my sweetheart, has become a habit, one I’m glad to have formed even if it’s a bit later in life.

Why I walk: Connection, health, mindfulness, community, freedom, love.

Related Reading

Books on Walking 

I’ve started to curate a list on I absolutely believe you should read this list, order from your local bookstore, and find a way to walk at least part of the way there to pick up whatever struck your fancy. If you don’t have a local bookstore then when your order from this list arrives in the mail, read a bit and then walk. 

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