Driving is faster, right? I mean, who has time for walking in this modern world? There aren't enough hours in the day to get everything done, but if we get from place to place as fast as possible, it will help alleviate our time management issues -- or so the reasoning goes.
I want to clarify that I don't advocate for walkable neighborhoods out of nostalgia, wishing to return to an earlier time in history. (Although I do love history.) There is overwhelming scientific evidence for the benefits of trying to walk more often, to more places, instead of driving. Here are three major advantages of walking vs. driving:
The Case for Walking Vs. Driving, in Three Parts
1. Our own health (physical + mental) and our children's health.
Everyone knows obesity isn't just about the foods we eat. As a society, we are sitting too much and for too long without changing position - at desks, or in front of computers. Our kids are expected to sit too long in school without breaks for recess or moving around. If you add the time spent sitting in a car while commuting or shuttling our kids around the city between different activities, to all the hours of sitting that most of us do every day in our workplaces, schools or in front of a screen at home, it seems clear that suburban sprawl has contributed to the obesity crisis. In the pre-war era, people lived in dense urban neighborhoods or in walkable suburbs (like historic Irvington) that were connected to the city by public transit, which made it natural to walk most places. Kids walked to school. Adults walked to work, or to the train or streetcar station to get to offices downtown. People walked to local shops to buy groceries. Now, after 60-plus years of highway-building and a culture idolizing the auto as a symbol of personal freedom, people have to drive everywhere because our cities and roads and shopping centers are designed for cars. "In 1969, roughly half of all children walked or biked to school, but today that figure is less than 15 percent," notes Leigh Gallagher in her book The End of the Suburbs. Schools, churches, stores, and workplaces today are most often built too far apart for pedestrian use. Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City points to a number of academic studies over the past decade showing the correlation between obesity and "the automotive lifestyle and, better yet, to the automotive landscape. . . . A six-year analysis of 100,000 Massachusetts residents found that the lowest body mass index averages were located in Boston and its inner-ring suburbs, while the highest could be found in the 'car-dependent' outer ring . . . Another [study] showed that drivers who switch to public transit drop an average of five pounds." Speck is quick to clarify that he is "wary of confusing causality with correlation . . . It is theoretically possible that, rather than suburbs making people fat, fat people make suburbs. But only a soulless pundit funded by the automotive industry -- and there are several -- would claim that people are not more likely to be healthy in environments that invite walking."
To combat the unhealthy effects of sedentary modern life, many people engage in daily or weekly exercise, like running, weight training, yoga or some form of group workout like CrossFit. But experts say there is actually no fitness activity that can substitute for walking, in terms of benefits to your health (which include improved cognitive ability, longevity, memory, and lower blood pressure, among others). Biomechanist and author Katy Bowman compares exercise to junk food - i.e., a short-term, quick fix with negative long-term consequences: "In lieu of a 'natural movement' diet, we partake of short, daily bouts trying to manipulate variables so that we might create a similar effect, in 60 minutes, to what we would have gotten over a 24-hour period. Exercise is convenient, for sure, but it can also be a highly processed version of what our body requires from movement. Exercise can fall way short of the nutrients movement provides. In short, exercise is the junk food of moving." (For those wondering what is this "natural movement" she speaks of, a major component is outdoor walking, in barefoot or minimalist shoes [which are shoes without heels, in order to encourage natural gait and correct alignment]. For more details, visit her blog, www.katysays.com, or check out her book Alignment Matters.)
Well, someone may object, if walking is really so great for your health, can't I just walk around my subdivision? Yes, of course! But to have a destination helps to stay motivated to walk regularly, even if your primary goal is to improve your health. And interesting surroundings (architecture/storefronts/other people) also help, which is often the case in an urban setting but rarely in the suburbs.
Walking improves not only our physical health, but our mental health as well, new research by the University of Michigan confirms. Dr. Sara Warber, a co-author of the recently published large-scale study, reports, "Our findings suggest that something as simple as joining an outdoor walking group may not only improve someone’s daily positive emotions but may also contribute a non-pharmacological approach to serious conditions like depression.” I have often experienced reduced stress and positive mood changes from walking outdoors around my neighborhood or on a nearby trail.
2. Environmental impact
So what about the impact of walking versus driving on the environment? Walking more and driving less, or driving shorter distances in dense urban areas, can actually do a lot to reduce pollution. "Automobile use is not only the single greatest contributor to our total carbon footprint, but also a reliable predictor of that total," reports Jeff Speck. Writing about our nation's costly dependence on foreign oil (almost a third of a trillion dollars each year, plus a large chunk of our $700 billion military budget used to protect these oil interests), Speck asks the question: "Do electric cars present an answer to this challenge? Certainly hybrids don't. Their marginally improved gas mileage mostly offers a feel-good way to drive more miles in increasingly larger vehicles. . . In contrast, the all-electric car seems to hold some real promise for curtailing our foreign oil addiction--but at what environmental cost? In most of the U.S., an electric-powered car is essentially a coal-powered car, and 'clean coal' is of course an oxymoron."
Surprisingly, the single biggest factor in reducing your carbon footprint and conserving the natural environment is actually the walkability of the location where you live. Eco-friendly, sustainable products and "green" solar-heated houses with bamboo floors and special toilets are statistically insignificant when compared to the pollution of the atmosphere that comes from how much we drive our cars. "It turns out that trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week [emphasis mine]. Why, then, is the vast majority of our national conversation on sustainability about the former and not the latter?" Speck quotes another author, Witold Rybczynski who sums it up like this: "Rather than trying to change behavior to reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. . . Just add another solar panel, a wind turbine, a bamboo floor, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the suburbs is still a house in the suburbs, and if you have to drive to it--even in a Prius--it's hardly green."
The bottom line is that in terms of pollution, Speck concludes, "the most green home (with Prius) in sprawl still loses out to the least green home in a walkable neighborhood." Economist Ed Glaeser says, "We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city."
3. Community building = "social capital"
There are probably at least a hundred ways to define "community," and the debate could be endless about how best to foster community in this modern age and social-media-obsessed society. But I think everyone could agree that community is desirable. We all feel a need to be in a community, somewhere, somehow, with other humans. Some feel most at home in an online community, connected through screens to others who share our particular niche interests. Some of us join or volunteer in groups or organizations; some design programs for community growth. All groups or organizations have something in common, whether it be religion, a specific career, shared interests or hobbies, politics, or entertainment. We have an intrinsic need for social bonds, interaction and acceptance, and a deep longing to be in relationship with other people. Yet very few of us think seriously about community being tied to a particular location where we live. Many Americans have grown used to thinking of community as someplace we drive to get to: school, church, the workplace, book club, the gym, playgroup, kids' sports activities, and so on, instead of community being our actual neighbors in the actual neighborhood where we live. In his book The Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment, Eric Jacobsen writes, "We live in a culture that has become convinced that there is no longer any connection between geography (where one lives and the distinctive qualities of that place) and our experience of community. 'Community is about relationships' has become almost a truism in certain circles. Questions of location simply don't matter anymore. . . This is all about to change. Either because gas prices will no longer allow us to drive our cars quite as far as we've been used to or because people will figure out that cyber-community and online social networking friends are no substitute for being in the physical presence of actual friends multiple times per day, questions of geography will become increasingly important over the next decade."
So how does walking foster community? Well, at a basic level, less time spent in your car during the day means more time being with other people and having face-to-face conversations. If those conversations happen with other people in your neighborhood, as you walk to and from the corner coffee shop, the local grocer or the playground with your children, even better; it becomes natural to greet and talk with people you see often in those places or on the way. City Gallery, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen Indy's core neighborhoods, has begun initiatives this year to encourage Indy residents to host porch parties and "city suppers" and invite their friends and neighbors. Interacting with your neighbors only once a year, at Halloween or the annual yard sale, is not an effective way to build a strong community. Walkability factors into this, as well as street patterns (grid vs. cul-de-sac/feeder road system) and home designs (front porches vs. attached garages).
The term "social capital" was first coined in the 1890s, but has been widely used only for the past 15 years or so. It refers to benefits derived from the cooperation between individuals and groups. The idea is that social contacts positively affect the productivity of individuals and groups, which in turn has a positive impact on society: "Social capital has been found to be linked to more than just good health; empirical linkages have been found among social capital, the proper functioning of democracy, the prevention of crime, and enhanced economic development," explains Dr. Kevin Leyden in the results of a study entitled Social Capital and the Built Environment: The Importance of Walkable Neighborhoods. Basically, the research confirms that pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use walkable neighborhoods encourage higher levels of social and community engagement, a.k.a. social capital: "Respondents living in walkable neighborhoods were more likely to know their neighbors, participate politically, trust others, and be socially engaged. . . .This study examined whether the built environment (i.e., the way we design and build our communities and neighborhoods) affects the degree to which people are involved in their communities and with each other. The fundamental premise is that some neighborhood designs enable or encourage social ties or community connections, whereas others do not."
This idea of community building by knowing our neighbors is important to me in how I think about modeling healthy relationships to our children. I want my kids to know that we can trust other people, even if they are different from us; that it's important to be friendly to strangers, instead of being fearful; and that living in a community with others implies a sense of obligation or responsibility to be good neighbors. I don't want them to be naive about real dangers, so I don't shelter them from knowing about the existence of evil, and I do my best to protect them from harm in every way. However, I believe we are not supposed to live in fear, or make decisions primarily based on fear, of real or perceived threats. My faith helps me to remember that we are trusting God to keep us safe wherever we are, wherever we live, and whoever we meet. We are not trusting in locked doors, or gated communities, or security systems, or the presumption that our neighbors are people just like us. Jacobsen describes a concept called the "home as haven" model, which many families have adopted: "The home in this model is understood as a place where children are protected from the larger society. Children are kept in the home safe from society until they are old enough to form their own families, which in turn will be protected from public life. . . . If one sees increasing danger in society, and one's family as primarily a private affair, it makes a certain amount of sense to do everything possible to protect one's family from the dangers of society." We reject that view; we aim to prepare our children to take their place as citizens in society and to be engaged with it, instead of retreating from it. We understand ourselves to be, paradoxically, pilgrims journeying through this world and also stewards charged with taking care of it and doing good in and for it.