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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Walkable ≠ Walked

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Image courtesy of William Picard

This guest post by Brandon Webber originally appeared on his website on April 15, 2013.

My work is 3.5 kilometres away from where I live. Being so close to work (comparatively), I’ve tried to commute as much as possible by bike and on foot. The decision to bike has been easy. Commuting by bike takes the same amount of time as commuting across the river by car. The fact that I can ride straight to the office without looking for parking has become an easy choice for the summer days.

Walking over the winter months is a much more difficult decision. On a good day I can walk my route in 35 minutes but a slow day takes closer to 45. ‘Why not take transit?’, you might ask? Apart from the monthly fee, the commute by LRT with a connection to a bus takes just as long as walking. Unless I purchase or build a bike for winter riding, a car is obviously the best choice. Yet I stay resolute in my decision.

So, walking over the winter it is. I have to admit that even for this small distance, walking in Edmonton is less than optimal. It is long, it is hard, it is cold and it is lonely. There are days when the weather is bad or the cars that pass you by are driven by careless people. There are days you’d like to carry more than what you can in your arms or the days you need to catch a meeting. And yet, there are days when walking is a gift. There are moments when you see the world differently because you are seeing the world at a pace where you actually ‘see’ things. I’ve been afforded some truly beautiful views walking at 7:00am while the city wakes up around me.

Edmonton is a ‘Walkable’ city. With asphalt paths, trails and sidewalks, you can walk most anywhere in the city. It actually has the most uninterrupted urban parkland in North America. Apart from minor annoyances like weather, traversing huge puddles at crosswalk corners or dodging the spray of sadistic drivers, there is nothing actually wrong with walking in Edmonton. I’ve made peace with all these small things that could deter one from stepping out on foot.

However, Edmonton is not a ‘walked’ city. It is not walked by the majority of the 800,000 or so that call it home. It is a driven city. Driven to the point of absurdity. It is driven by those that do their recycling 4 blocks away or pick up groceries just down the road. It is driven by those that commute long hours to and from work year in and year out. Blame it on city planning: a short-sighted vision for the future that has left us with pock-marked roads and jam-pack freeways. Blame it on developers: the folks who buy up our lots and pave them into horrendous retail blocks with bloated and silly parking lots. Blame it on our leadership: those who seem unwilling or unable to correct course. Blame this predicament on who you will, but it won’t change the fact that Edmonton is not a walked city because we, you and I, choose not to walk it.

Economist Jeff Rubin said recently on the CBC, that triple-digit oil prices are the best thing for us because it will at long last wean us off a convenient lifestyle reliant on cheap fuel. I think this is a sad and pessimistic view of humanity: that we can only change our behaviour once it hurts more than it does to maintain our status quo.

When we choose to walk we are choosing more than a lifestyle, we are choosing a entirely different economic system. We are then choosing to buy retail only from a 3-4 km radius, which changes where retailers choose to locate. We are then choosing to frequent social events that are close at hand, which encourages events to take place close to home. When we walk we are choosing to inhabit the neighbourhoods that we actually live in.

Our cities will only change when more of us choose to walk. Then it will be the obvious choice for city planners, developers and leadership to plan a city that caters to those on foot. Until that happens, we are still the people that choose the car – and we have to live with the implications of that choice. When we drive, we don’t get the city we want, we get the city we deserve.