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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

“Far” a factor of time and discomfort.

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Our author, Matt, on a winter trek across the North Saskatchewan on foot

I live at 93rd St and 104th Ave; I don’t own a car.  I could, but it’s better that I pay down my Visa right now.  Anyway, when I moved here last December, I asked my landlord: “So could I walk to downtown from here?”  She hesitated and replied: “Maybe in the summer”.  City hall is 1 km away. In winter boots, I can walk this distance in 15 min.  For me this is not far, for her this was a distance not to be contemplated.  The interesting thing about being a walker is the difference in how distances are perceived by walkers vs non walkers: how far is far?  I have come to the conclusion that “far” is a function of time and discomfort.

Now if I had said: “Can I drive downtown from here?” She would have laughed.  In the confines of a warm car, downtown is 40 to 50 seconds away. This is the walking equivalent of a trip to the front yard from the bedroom. The same cannot be said if you look at this the other way around.  A 15 min drive from my home will bring you anywhere within the confines of Edmonton if the traffic is light.  Is a 15 min drive far?  Still no, 15 min in a warm comfy car is nowhere near as far as 15 min at -25C across barren parking lots.

Distance is also not a great indicator of how “far” something actually is.  For example, the Strathconna Farmers market is only 5 km south of my home.  As a runner, I know that I can easily jog 5 km in 30 min on a track.  Unfortunately, the North Saskatchewan River valley is not a track.  With winter boots on, this trip took me 80 mins.  This was a very long and uncomfortable 80 mins let me tell you.  What would the equivalent drive be?  It’s hard to tell, maybe a drive to Drayton Valley with a broken heater, no power steering and a misaligned front end?  In any event, this trip was not something I would willingly do more than once.

“Far”, I suppose, is also a function of how much discomfort you’re used to or is strictly necessary.   Over the course of this past winter in Edmonton, I found that 30 mins on foot at -20C was about as far as I was willing to go.   This meant that for the past few months my world has been bounded in the north by 109th Ave, in the West by 109th St and to the south and East by the river valley.  I’ve had a pretty small and habitat these past few months. 2 km west is about as far as I could make it.  This is not to say that I didn’t have everything I needed: I bought groceries, clothes, watched movies went to bars and restaurants.  It was just that I had a very limited number of options.

Then May arrived and I got a bike.  Suddenly my world is exponentially bigger.   Things that are 10-15 km away are now within my reach.  I can go faster, I can be outside longer.   It’s great!  I feel like someone’s let me off the leash after a long time inside.    For my driving friends out there, maybe now might be the time to give your feet or a bike a chance.  Things are no longer as “far” as you might think.