Thursday, October 15, 2009

Take a walk

We don't own a car. OK, we live in New York City, so it's not exactly the sacrifice of the century to not own a car, but you would be surprised at the number of people here who do own one (all that traffic doesn't just come from taxis and people from Westchester County).

I was born in Detroit and grew up in its environs. My father worked for the automobile industry for most of his adult life. So you would think I would have some umbilical connection to automobiles. But I don't. Except for one year of my life, when a co-worker gave me her old, falling-apart Suburu wagon (whose engine still ran like a top, but whose chassis made me think I was driving Fred Flintstone's car), I have never owned a car. When I first moved in with Peter, he had a car and we kept it for about a year and then decided that the hassle and expense of having a car in Manhattan (where we lived at the time) was not worth it.

We've never looked back. We rent a car if we need one (mostly to visit Peter's family who live among various states in New England). And we take the subway and buses. But mostly we WALK. We have a "rule" that if a destination can be reached within the hour (which means it's less than four miles away), we walk there. We walk everywhere and it has had the following ameliorative effects on our lives:
1) Statistically, we're going to live longer. We joke at the end of every walk: "That's another 60 seconds longer on our death beds!" Unless, of course, a car kills us, but we're fairly cautious street-crossers.
2) We've really gotten to know Brooklyn. We moved here about seven years ago and have managed to explore on foot neighborhoods that I know we would otherwise never have ventured into.
3) It's given us time and space to talk without the interruptions of daily life. No phones (we do carry our cells but no one calls us on them because they know we're so bad at answering them); no emails pinging us (or, I should say, me, who salivates on cue); no to-do list distracting us (well, I should say me again, because Peter carries his to-do list in his head and obsesses over it, no matter where he is).

I've never done a carbon footprint analysis of what not having a car means in terms of the effects on the Earth's atmosphere, but I don't really have to do one to know that the benefits are real.

I realize that most people in this country can't live without a car, but really, do we need to drive EVERYWHERE? I'm reminded of a funny story I heard once from a European gentleman who had been visiting a friend in LA. He had gotten so crazy from driving everywhere that he begged his host to go walking with him one day in the neighborhood. No sooner had they set off when a neighbor came running out of her house, demanding to know if everything was all right. Yes, they assured her, they were just out for a walk. A few minutes later, a car coming from the opposite direction screeched to a halt. It was the host's wife. She jumped out, wild-eyed, crying, "Is everything all right?" My European interlocutor, telling the story, just shook his head.

I realize this story is about LA, which has a storied car culture, but I have family and friends living all over the U.S. and their perspectives on walking seem so distorted to me. That grocery store that's a mile away is a 20 minute walk -- if all you're doing is buying milk and eggs, put on your backpack and walk there. It's good for you and it's good for your environment.

I don't mean to sound like I'm on my high horse here (high tops might be a better metaphor) but walking is the easiest, freest, most interesting exercise there is. And if you're walking, you're not driving. And that is a good thing.

P.S. This photo is of me (and Philadelphia firefighter friends) during the 2007 Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure, a 3-day/60 mile walk to raise money for breast cancer research. Louise got me to do the walk with her in 2006 and 2007. You train for something like this for months and believe me, your sense of distances changes dramatically.

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