Life At Walking Speed

The stars aligned yesterday. Everyone was up and dressed early, it was a beautiful sunny morning, breakfast and a packed school lunch came together without a fuss. My daughter was done eating her breakfast and we had an easy half-hour until we had to be at the bus stop, so we walked.

It’s a long half-mile to the bus-stop, and it’s uphill the whole way, but that’s not why we rarely walk in the mornings. As a family, we are good walkers. Homebrew husband has used an afternoon pacing-session to deal with office stress since before I met him, and our daughter, at age 6, handled a hilly 5-mile wood ramble in the rain without too much complaint.

No, we rarely walk in the mornings because we simply run out of time. Usually, the time we have at home between waking-up and leaving (driving) to the bus is jammed filled with the morning basics: get dressed, change the baby, get the baby dressed, brush teeth, nurse the baby, make and eat breakfast,  pack a lunch, feed the cats, feed the chickens, start a load of laundry, change the baby again, mop up baby puke, nurse the baby again, get the baby in the car seat, get the daughter out the door (“Did you remember your lunch? Oh, hell, c’mon honey, put on your shoes, we’ve got to go!”). As much as I hate to say it, our shit is rarely together enough in the morning to allow for a peaceful, leisurely walk to the bus.

This is true of more afternoons than I’d like to admit too. Often I am faced with the dilemma of letting the baby sleep for another 25 minutes and then hurriedly shoving him into his carseat to go pick up his older sister, or waking him and facing the prospect that he will be extremely cranky for several hours. Usually I opt to let sleeping babies lie, and hence forgo the walk.

I’ve also noticed that committing to even minimal after school activities necessitates that I drive to pick up my daughter from the bus rather than walk, because the extra 20 minutes of walking time will make us late to the extra-curricular event. We are loathe to overschedule, but my daughter has once-a-week swimming and once-a-week Spanish class after school, and we find both very valuable. Between those after-school activities and my own once-a-week afternoon job, there are three afternoons when walking isn’t possible. And it’s all because of time.

This is a pity, because I really much prefer to take in the world on my feet instead of on my ass in a car. On those mornings and afternoons when we do walk, the time is inevitably priceless. On our little walks my daughter really opens up and tells me about her ideas and hopes or her experiences at school. She is naturally inward-focused and does a lot of quiet processing on things that I never get to share, but when we walk she is somehow more free to let her thoughts fly. I soak it all in while scanning for inattentive drivers, protecting the moment in all the ways a mom will.

I have to wonder, what would happen if we had to live life at walking speed? How would our options shift for where we live, how we socialize and what we take on? How would our communities be rebuilt to reflect the necessities of slow travel? How much of your life would change?


  1. Dreaming of Jeanie says

    Well, I once thought I lived in a very small town until I tried walking to work for a week. After an hour to work and an hour home I definitely had more of an appreciation for my car.

  2. says

    Well, we live in a small town with a less-than-ideal grocery store (yeah, we're vegans in a very meat-and-potatoes town), and my daily commute is nearly 80 miles. BUT we do enjoy nearly nightly walks around town during pleasant weather. It's a nice chance to see people who aren't hiding indoors in front of their TVs. We're actually considering moving to a slightly larger city with more for us in closer vicinity to get rid of at least one of the cars.

  3. Rosa says

    The first year, my son was too little for a bike trailer and we walked EVERYWHERE. It was kind of nice, in a lazy way, and it made me cut down on a lot of commitments, which was also really nice. But it was very, very, very slow. Even the half-mile walk home from daycare when he was a little older was excruciatingly slow. It was basically our activity for the evening – I'd take the bus to the daycare, then we'd walk home together.

    The bike trailer, and now the xtracycle, changed everything. Our range is a lot bigger, and it's all faster, and hauling things is a lot easier. I have a friend who does not drive or bike and I find myself more and more unwilling to go places with her because it's such a time sink.

    So I think the real answer is people-powered wheels, not giving up on wheels entirely.

  4. says

    I agree to some extent with Rosa. Wheels let you still enjoy life at a slower speed without distances longer than a mile taking up huge portions of time. On the other hand, you'd be less likely to enjoy those same conversations with your daughter on the bike due to the need to watch traffic even more closely.

    Human-powered transportation is what we used to strive for, and we're still trying to fit that back in our lives in our new location. Unfortunately, there are many BAD drivers here and roads with high speeds (and roads with low speeds that have outrageous speeders driving them), so I get nervous about biking locally. The coming 2-3 years of road construction to make the main road even bigger, which will encourage more speeding, won't help.

    If I HAD to walk everywhere, I really hope that would mean everyone had to walk everywhere…

  5. says

    When I was growing up my mom, grandma and great-grandma (the women I spent all of my time with) didn't drive, so we walked everywhere! I don't remember it being difficult or tiring. I certainly didn't complain. What I do remember is the feeling of the sun and air on my body. The bugs and rocks and little things that I would never have discovered from the car. And one perfectly round rock, just the size of my 5 year old butt, wonderfully located 1/2 way between our house and the grocery store. Walk on!

  6. Be Grim says

    Ever since I can remember, one of my favorite musings has been "what would it be like if there were no cars?". It's actually rather difficult to imagine, because so many things would be different; things we wouldn't even realize. Still, it's nice to dream about, and people got along fine for thousands of years without autos!

  7. amanda says

    Walking speed doesn't necessarily require slowing down. One benefit of density and cities is that you gain the ability to walk and be close to the things that you need to do, where you work, where you learn, where you play. In successful cities, you don't need a car to go about your day-to-day.

    The trade-off for the space you get in suburban (or rural) areas is either in time (to walk) or in mode (a car).

    An alternate to big cities vs. sprawl still requires some density, but maybe looks more like villages (a la Europe or England a little old-school), where there is a small, but somewhat dense gathering place reasonably nearby. Everything (pub, grocery, school, church, social hall, shops) is in a small walkable core, so that once you are there, even walking pace is efficient to get everything you need done. It's a little harder to contemplate here, where the spaces are just so much bigger.

    If you want both the space that rural areas have and the access to the choice & diversity that density brings, then don't you have (fast + car) or (slow + walk)? Or maybe (medium + bicycle)? :) And probably sprawl?

  8. Pamina says

    I live in a neighborhood that is not so good for walking, especially at night. When I lived in Japan for a few months, I had the luxury of more free time and no car. I walked everywhere, including the 45 minutes to and from the train station, even late at night if I went to dinner in the city. It was SO liberating to be able to walk on dark streets with no fear. I really enjoyed that pace of life! Best of luck finding more time to share walks with your daughter. It sounds fabulous.

  9. says

    I haven't had a car for over two years now, which made life difficult where I used to live, because the public transportation system sucked. I just moved to a city with an awesome bus system, plus it's a university town, which is completely bike friendly. Sometimes I still miss my car, and will probably get another one someday, but for now, I'm happy to live life more slowly.

  10. says

    I would love life at walking speed! Unfortunately, with 5 kids to get into the car in the morning to drive 3 to school, it isn't going to happen yet. However, next year, I'm going to try walking or riding to school for my volunteering time. I have tried walking to soccer which was so easy – only 10 minutes. We'll do more of that this fall.

  11. says

    We dropped back to one car five years ago, and sold it four months ago. We're in rural Australia, and the public transport is horrendously expensive and runs at inconvenient times. So we've walked/biked everywhere. We have five kids and a four seater pram to cart piles of stuff around in.

    When we HAD a car, it was so easy to say that things were too hard to do, or too far to walk/bike to. Once we got rid of it, we realised how ridiculously easy most things are to do. I've written a little bit about it on my blog, mainly the practicalities (cos it's what i'm all about :P)

    We're looking for another car now, so we can move back out bush, and i'll miss the quiet times. The kids definitely will, they love riding their bikes everywhere. Unfortunately I haven't yet found anywhere in my price range where I can have the best of both worlds.

  12. says

    As someone who mostly does live life on walking time, I find that (a) a 40-minute walk (about 2 miles, maybe a little less, on my adult legs) is perfectly pleasant most of the year and manageable for the rest of it. However, it does change how you plan things.

    I chose where I lived so that I could walk to most places. Then, when the public tranit strike happened a few years ago, I was still able to get groceries and take on work contracts because I wasn’t stranded. So my reasons for moving turned out to bear exactly the kind of fruit I was expecting. After two months of walking everywhere, (December and January), I just decided to keep it up and stopped buying a monthly bus pass.

    Walking Everywhere means that you combine things – Down-town meeting means getting groceries on the way home, since I’m passing the store anyway. It also means opting for the closer-to-home (but rarely-local-food-based) grocery store or the convenience store (typically more expensive, but much, much closer) when I need a carton of milk or similar and have company coming in less than an hour.
    It means planning the grocery shopping for Big Events a month in advance, so that you can coordinate with a friend who is cool with playing chauffeur in order to haul all your ingredients home in one go rather than having to hit the grocery store (see how much of my life is The Grocery Store?) every day for a week or more.

    It means that I’m more likely to visit friends who live within a mid-distance walk of where I live (I lucked out, and accidentally moved into the dykiest neighbourhood in town, just as I was coming out, so I have wound up having a lot of (new) friends in my neighbourhood more or less by dumb luck). It means that I’m more likely to visit my farther-flung friends when they’re on their lunch-breaks rather than visit them when they’re a bus-ride away on the weekends.

    It means I’m glad I live urban, rather than suburban, because it means I can walk myself to shows and events rather than having to rely on public transit, even in winter.

    I *like* having a car. It makes going out of town for a weekend a much, MUCH easier possibility, and it means I can cart home potting soil or sugar or flour in the big, economy-size bags rather than paying extra (over time) to bring home the bags that I can mannage carrying for half an hour at a stretch. I like having a car. But I don’t *need* one.

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