The Green Metropolis, I learned that people are less likely to walk than drive in rural and suburban areas not just because there are fewer hassles involved in non-urban driving, but also because of distance perception. The same distance on a rural road where houses are few and far in between, or even on a suburban street where shops are separated by big parking lots, will seem longer than it will in a city where buildings are clustered closely together and human activity is more bustling. To put this theory to the test, I used the Google Maps distance measurement tool (yes I am a map geek) to assess some familiar routes in my life.
Distance to the subway from my old apartment: 1/3 mile
Distance to the subway from my current apartment: 1/2 mile
Distance from my college dorm room to the music building on the opposite side of campus: 1/3 mile
Distance from senior housing to music building: 1/2 mile
Distance from a cafe to my friend's apartment on the outskirts of a village upstate: 7/8 mile
I was surprised that the length of my morning subway walks in Brooklyn are about the same as my former walks to class. All those times I rushed to class, past scattered campus buildings across lawns and tree-lined paths, the route felt so long! In comparison, walking the same distance past brownstone after brownstone to the nearest subway stop feels like a relatively short stroll so I can get where I'm really going. In fact, when I lived in senior housing with my car nearby, I used to drive to class sometimes to save time. I can't imagine ever driving to the subway!
When I was upstate a couple months ago visiting a friend, in a very walkable town, I noticed a distinct lack of people on the street. Yes it was cold, but fifty miles south, the cold didn't stop New Yorkers from walking where they needed to go. Rather than have my friend pick me up from a cafe, I had a pleasant walk to her apartment, getting some exercise along the way. I had no idea when I set out how long the walk really was - I initially perceived it would be quite a ways to go from one end of town to the other, but it actually ended up being a manageable 15 minute walk, or about 7/8 mile, something I wouldn't balk at trekking in New York City.*
I believe that cars play a role in distance perception, as well. The more you drive, the more you get used to the short time it takes to drive everywhere, so of course walking seems to take a long time in comparison. Yes, it may take longer to walk, but there are many benefits. For example, money saved on gas and parking. Less fuel wasted from the earth's dwindling supply of peak oil. More exercise means less need to drive to the gym to burn the calories you could work off by walking or biking.
Two ladies in particular have written about their own inspiring experiences with pedestrianism: Lisa the EcoYogini walks 45 minutes to and from work in negative degree weather. Erin the Conscious Shopper walks with her children, stroller, and gear in tow for two hours several times a week.
So I'd like to challenge you: Next time you're headed somwhere less than a couple miles away that you'd normally drive to, try walking instead!
*In fact, just this weekend I accumulated 6 miles of walking without intending to over the course of the day, between walking the dog and getting around while out on the town. Proving another one of David Owen's points that urbanites often spend more time outside then their rural counterparts who go from indoors to car and back again.