“I’m goin’ fer a walk!” – Peter Price, beloved Liverpool DJ and potential shapeshifting lizard.
As somewhat of a self-described rotund fellow, walking is often my physical activity of choice. I’ve never been one for competitive sports, partially out of a socialistic desire to see everyone win, and partially out of a kindness to my fellow humans to not expose them to my sweaty, gasping mass.
I just love a good walk. Not necessarily a hike, not necessarily a ramble (although there are many who would say I’m prone to that too), but a walk. I can lose myself in supermarkets for hours, wandering the aisles despite already having filled my basket with the things I actually needed. Don’t get me started on Costco, where the winning combination of vast amounts of things to look at, and free samples on each corner for sustenance can lead to my family listing me as a missing person.
What I’m trying to say, is I like walks that are interesting. Walks that are both purposeful and pointless. Walks that may not have a specific final destination but have plenty of points of interest on the way. I like to stroll down main streets and town centres and watch how people interact with the space around them. It’s a big part of why I studied sociology and then town planning. It’s a deciding factor in anywhere I’ve ever chosen to live.
In this entry in my Immigrant Blog (something that was supposed to be a one off but people said nice things and flattery will get you everywhere), I won’t get technical. I could wax lyrical about walk scores, JanesWalks, and the General Theory of Walkability. I very nearly wrote a dissertation on it, but I won’t. Instead, what I will do is give you a collection of random thoughts, in a random order, about what in my experience America gets very right, and very wrong, about walking.
Walking makes you feel like a weirdo.
Being as I am, currently employmentally challenged, I have found myself accompanying my wife to work, and being deposited in coffee shops near wherever she happens to be working that day (she travels between locations) so that I can get more of a sense of my new home. Oftentimes, these locations are strip malls. If you are English and don’t know what one of these are, they are a collection of shops with matching storefronts that seem to be placed almost at random near major roads (I’m simplifying but whatever.)
Recently, I decided I was not in the mood to pay $8 for a moderately sized, moderately fresh sandwich at Starbucks, and so I ventured out on foot in search of better options. My Google Maps told me an alternative strip mall was a short walk away, and there was a small town centre in-between, and so off I went.
My walk was parallel to an extremely busy highway. While I was fortunate enough to have a decent sidewalk, I know not all highways have this, and the speed and ferocity with which traffic whipped by me was disconcerting. Couple the intensity of traffic with how long a lot of pedestrian crossings take to turn in favour of the pedestrian and America often leaves no doubt that the car is king.
Even more worrying though, was the lack of fellow foot passengers I met. I seemed to be the only person walking anywhere. That’s unusual to me and took a lot of the fun out of the walk. I’m one of those creepy weirdos (read: Northerners) who likes to smile and say hello to strangers I walk by. When there aren’t any of them to do that, that defeats one of the biggest purposes of my walk (oh, and the Subway at the other strip mall was closed so I ended up walking back and eating in Starbucks anyway.)
Aside from feeling like an absolute lunatic for walking anywhere, the higher rents that walkability commands in the USA make shopping more expensive, too. You can see this in my HIGHLY POLISHED VENN DIAGRAM below.
(for those who don’t get it (like my wife, apparently) this means that there are no stores accessible by foot that are also affordable.)
Whilst I’ve definitely found fresh produce in the USA to be more expensive than in the UK (although other things are cheaper), usually the only stores within walking distance are of the convenience, or locally owned variety. This usually means a winning combination of higher prices, and lower variety. If you want the savings and bulk buying options that a WalMart offers, well, you better have a car, because they only exist on the periphery of towns. Gone are my days of taking a walk to The Asda.
Some places get it very, very right.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Yes, I recognise I am living in a country with a far more car-dependent culture. Yes, I recognise that as of this moment I don’t have many places to be and once I become more independent these feelings will go away. Yes, I realise that the additional costs of higher prices at walkable places is often offset by gas/petrol costs.
But goodness me, when America gets walkability right, it gets it RIGHT. Just outside my current address is a phenomenal woodland walk. Does it have storefronts and coffee shops? No. But does it have incredible nature and access to a waterfront? In spades. To put it mildly, it is considerably nicer to walk around Illinois than it was to walk around the mess that was where I used to live in Florida, where it was common practice to keep a copy of your last will and testament on you when visiting the local Publix.
Yesterday I visited Evanston to meet with a local planning consultant there who generously took time out of his day to give me career advice and welcome me to the area. That place is a goldmine of walkability. Varied store fronts, mixed-usage between retail, residential and leisure. Signposts everywhere so you know where you’re going. Yes, the roads are still a little too wide to feel safe crossing, but the crosswalks are much more pedestrian friendly. There was a buzz, too, a large student population meant there was activity on every corner, and even though the temperature was arctic (-16c, with a windchill of -23) there was a lot going on. The place felt alive, and I loved walking around it.
I’m definitely beginning to really settle in to my new surroundings and trying my best to make them feel like home. Writing these blogs helps a lot, and I hope they help you get an insight into the little things you might not think about if you ever move abroad.
Consistency and persistency.