Raise a Little Green

Walk Not

Upon visiting my old homestead, I realized that I actually lived quite close to a lot of amenities. It just never occurred to me to walk.

By Darren Kaulback
Published July 22, 2009

It's been almost ten years now since I lived in the suburbs, and a lot has changed since then.

Upon visiting my old homestead, I realized that I actually lived quite close to a lot of amenities. My modest, but nicely maintained, street ran parallel to a major traffic artery. There was a Tim Hortons at one end of the street. (Back then I was a TH fiend - now, not so much ... but that's a whole other story).

My favourite grocery store was a mere five minute walk from my front step. Being an East Coaster originally, I used to frequent the Fish & Chips joint at the other end of the street - about 30 seconds away. Being employed as a freelancer, I had a couple of places nearby where I worked, both about one major street from my house.

But here's the weird part: I never walked. I never walked anywhere. Not even to the Fish & Chips spot at the corner. Not to the Tim Horton's at the other end. My places of employment would have taken ten minutes by bike but I always drove - and I had a bike. In fact, I still use the same bike I brought 20 years ago when I lived in Toronto.

It wasn't as though I was uneducated in the ways of environmental care. I used to take copious amounts of time to sort my recyclables. I refused to buy tin foil and saran wrap. I kept my heat low in the winter and always turned off the lights. (I think the turning of the lights thing was programmed in at a young age by my mother, along with walking on the outer edge of the sidewalk "when you're with a lady.")

However, looking back, I think my aversion to walking was not an aversion at all. It just never occurred to me. Everybody had a car and everybody drove. There was no expectation that I would do anything else.

There were no visual cues either, like people walking or ample sidewalks to walk on. Perhaps it was the wide roads of rushing traffic that suggested a simple walk to get groceries would not be a pleasant thing to do.

These days, taking the car is always my last option. If I can walk there, I do. If it's too far to walk, I bike or take public transit. In fact, I have actually biked to the vary same "work" building I used to live close to. It's now about a 45 minute bike ride but I've opted for that over public transit since that takes about an hour and a half.

I'm not saying that I am the new poster boy for the anti-auto lobby, I still use my car when life is going so fast that I don't have two hours to take a bus to and from my destination. When I transport my kids to and fro, public transition often proves to not be a feasible option. (Do I sense a future blog posting?)

But the difference between me-ten-years-ago and me-now is that I don't look to my car as a magical transporter that will take me everywhere I want to go. I live in a neighourhood where it's enjoyable to take a stroll down the street and get a great cappuccino at a Portuguese bakery, shop at the nearby farmer's market or work on my laptop at an organic cafe.

The neat thing is that I actually see people I know when I use my feet. The $27 I paid for my portable cart is one of the best purchases I've made and it makes it possible to shop and walk home.

I'm not saying the my former suburban world would have been transformed by my choice to walk. But at least I would have benefited from lower car costs and more exercise. Perhaps we sometimes assume we can't do something just because it's not what people do. Or like me, it's just not on the radar.

If everyone who lived in suburban areas, and urban areas for that matter, chose to walk to and shop at the places that are close to them, would we see a shift in the way our communities grow? Would we all feel a greater sense of pride and ownership in the public spaces that surround us?

First published in Darren's blog, Raise a Little Green.

Many of us have our own take on what it means to be green. For Darren, "green" goes beyond just the mechanics of living lightly on the earth, to a more soulful understanding of ourselves as part of nature. He authors a weekly blog, Raise a Little Green, where he highlights the "mis-adventures of turning green," challenges our cultural ideologies and assumptions, and asks the deeper questions of purpose and fulfillment. Darren is a TV director and filmmaker who lives in downtown Hamilton with his wife and two children.


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By jason (registered) | Posted July 22, 2009 at 09:41:15

great piece Darren. I gather from your various postings on RTH that you live near James North. If I may ask, where is this former suburban area that you used to live?

I had an interesting experience last night. We took the family to the Starlite Drive In and my wife and kids wanted to stop at the Bulk Barn on the way. Living downtown of course there is no bulk barn nearby, so I checked their website and saw a location on Mud St a couple of minutes from the theatre.

This Mud St locale was in a new big box complex, but it was much different than other big box centres I've seen. I sat in the car while my wife ran into the store and observed people coming and going. There were a ton of people on bikes, walking dogs, young kids walking to the movie store etc.... There was more pedestrian activity in 10 minutes at this box complex than the Meadowlands would see in a year.

I realized a couple of reasons for this:

  1. There was a large residential neighbourhood adjacent to this complex with easy access off of a side street (in other words, Mud St could be completely avoided by folks walking or cycling to this complex).
  2. The complex was smaller, narrower and had buildings very close together compared to most box centres. And the entire thing was connected by sidewalks. I saw people go from Shoppers to Blockbuster to the Bulk Barn on foot, comfortably and safely.

While I would never live in that area, it was nice to see an improvement on the typical sprawl/box store configuration. Kids being able to walk or ride their bike to the convenience store is such a lost art these days.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted July 22, 2009 at 12:55:26

"When I transport my kids to and fro, public transition often proves to not be a feasible option. (Do I sense a future blog posting?)"

I'm looking forward to that one. How many of us know people (or are people) that happily bike or walk everywhere, but still drive the kids to all their stuff out of necessity?

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By geoff's two cents (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2009 at 01:55:24

Darren, thanks for the article. I can certainly relate - I found myself driving everywhere (and with a somewhat uneasy conscience) until I actually forced myself to give up the car. Since then, albeit with occasional ups and downs, I've managed to lose weight, quit smoking, and I spend a lot more time out and about in my neighborhood. I'm also a lot more picky about where I choose to live. Losing the car is one of the best decisions I've made - It's at least as important to me as quitting smoking. (Having said that, I realize that it is likely easier for me to do this than, say, for someone who is paying off a house in the suburbs somewhere, or who has small children).

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By Darren Kaulback (anonymous) | Posted July 23, 2009 at 15:05:44

Great comments. To answer Jason's question, I used to live in Burlington at Guelph Line, just below Upper Middle Road. I'm not sure if the establishments that I mentioned are still there or not... but there's a huge home depot complex, future shop etc. that wasn't there back then.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 26, 2009 at 17:27:13

for what it's worth, I was in TO this weekend and got a day pass for all day TTC rides for my wife and I. Total cost was $9. It could have also included up to 4 kids had our kids been with us. I do like this new Passport to Hamilton by the HSR, but I think it should be cheaper. In Toronto we went from Yonge to Queen West to St Lawrence Market, back to Dundas/Yonge and then to the Beaches. Not once did I bother to check a schedule and not once did we wait more than 3 minutes for our streetcar or subway. To have a day pass in Hamilton you either need to be an expert at planning your day to arrive at the bus stop for the next bus, or you risk spending half your day standing around waiting for the next bus. I took a total of 6 subway/streetcar rides yesterday and spent a grand total of just over 11 minutes waiting for the next train to arrive. That's right. My average, not having a clue about the schedules was just under 2 minutes per ride.

Hamilton's 30-45 minute headways needs to be addressed in order to see our city become a more transit/walking friendly city....along with many other things.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted July 27, 2009 at 12:49:08

I would like to see this topic approached in the inverse more often. Not as more density and mixed use, wider sidewalks, better transit etc, because those things are easy to support in theory but difficult to implement in infrastructure.

And even convincing more people to walk and cycle will max out quickly because there are only so many tough people. Because kids, elderly, disabled, and the non-confident will avoid 'dangerous' roads.

What makes roads dangerous? The way in which people drive on them.

The thing that prevents forward movement more than anything else is the reluctance to go after the problem of aggressive, selfish driving. This is easy to do, but it seems to grind against all kinds of social norms so most people are really scared to provide any feedback to these self-centered drivers.

People who often walk and cycle tend to drive cars at a safe speed and with attention and control that keeps other pedestrians and cyclists as safe as the road design will allow. i.e. Drive as if those are your own kids on the sidewalk. I'd say this describes 25% of drivers.

Or, you could drive as if the world revolves around you - as fast as you can get away with, ignore pedestrians, curse cyclists, never signal, yak on cell phones, treat stop signs as fast yields (to cars, not pedestrians), and have no concept of staying in your lane while making a turn. This describes another 25% of drivers, and the other half is in between.

In terms of getting where you need to go the time difference between these driving styles is minimal in the city. But the consequences are way different.

When I moved to Hamilton 7 years ago, the police would often have the radar out on Aberdeen and Longwood. I haven't seen them once in the last 3 years. Since the cops are increasingly useless in stopping aggressive drivers, the public has to engage in changing this.

I don't mean pedestrian rage. DOn't ever get emotional, but whenever you see some shitty driving, let the driver know with some quick word or gesture (e.g. thumbs down is a non threatening one) that what they're doing is irresponsible. Don't escalate, when the driver sees your gesture, stop, the job is done, don't rub it in.

But please do it to improve in the livability of this city. You have the guts, trust yourself. And tell your friends.

If I'm the only one who does this, not much will change. If a driver sees several independent people mocking their bad driving often enough, they will change their behaviour.

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By Meredith (registered) - website | Posted July 27, 2009 at 16:34:55

When I walk, I wave a lot at intersections - whether making eye contact with the driver who's pulled halfway through the intersection and stopped in the crosswalk and asking "what are you doing? ..... or a smile and a wave to the driver who stops a few seconds early, or pulls back if they've gone too far into the crosswalk.

I've never once been treated poorly for doing that, but I've had drivers say sorry for pulling too far into the crosswalk (and I smiled back, and said it was ok). Especially if they stop for me early or pull back, especially on the side streets where some drivers blow through stop signs, it's only polite to say thank you, right?

Either way, I think it makes drivers more aware of pedestrians.

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By Brandon (registered) | Posted July 27, 2009 at 16:48:25

I use those moments as a teaching moment with my son, particularly when the driver's window is open.

"Some driver's don't know how to stop."

It's remarkable the looks you get sometimes...

Does it do any good? I doubt it.

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By jason (registered) | Posted July 28, 2009 at 07:42:53

Brandon, I do the same thing.
While crossing Main at Locke with my kids we'll stay on the sidewalk for a few extra seconds once the walk signal has come up. We wait for all the cars to actually stop and I especially love it if the drivers window is down. I say to my kids "you can't start walking just because that walk signal comes up. In Hamilton lots of people drive right through the red light. Always stay on the sidewalk until you see the cars actually come to a stop."

I too am amazed at some of the looks of embarrassment I get.

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By Jacksie (anonymous) | Posted August 08, 2009 at 20:47:16

I really enjoyed this - thank you for posting it. I do not own a car and my bike is my main mode of transportation. I recently moved to Hamilton after living in Toronto for over 20 years, and I find Hamilton much more bike-friendly than Toronto. Having said that, Hamilton still has a long way to go. As others have noted in this and other posts on this site, Hamilton has the potential to be a cycling paradise. While I frequently take King and Main to get across the city, I always feel like I am riding my bike on the 401 or the autobahn. It would be so much nicer, so much safer, and so much more conducive to cycling if these two main arteries were converted to two way streets, with proper bike lanes and a lower speed limit that was enforced. Is it not true that, if you build it they will come?

Several of my friends in Hamilton have bikes, and when we go out for a bike ride they load their bikes onto a bike rack attached to their gas guzzling autos and meet me at the bike trail. They are afraid to ride their bikes on roads with cars.

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