Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Perception of Distance; or Walk More!

 While recently reading David Owen's 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.

via flickr


  1. LOVE THIS. joe and i made a promise to ourselves that we would walk more when we moved. driving is such an LA thing. we walk to do EVERYTHING now. we only drive if we have tons of groceries to take home or are going more than a mile and a half away. we've been here for two and a half weeks now and have only used 1/4 tank of gas in one of our cars. we're hoping to sell our other one by the summer. as strange as it sounds, we actually feel like all the walking has lifted our spirits and it's SO MUCH CHEAPER.

  2. This is so spot on. I was just thinking about it yesterday, because even though I live close to school, it's half a mile away, and the places we usually go for lunch/drinks are usually about a mile away from my apt and I would never for a minute think that they were any sort of far away.

  3. Completely agree, in London I walk everywhere, because I can! But sometimes in the countryside it's just not as easy to walk. Crazy fields or big roads and no pavements. Plus I think walking keeps me sane!

  4. I was a total non-walker (growing up in a rural area) until I Moved to the city (mostly Montreal did it). I am very used to walking now (and it's no longer a zillion below zero!) but I still HATE walking in the rain.

    anyhoo- for myself, another huge deterrant of walking in rural areas (especially home that doesn't even have a sidewalk) is that people STARE. and if you live there- EVERYONE will know you were out walking. seriously.

    most likely, if we move out of the city, the bicyle will be a more preferred mode of transport... not as weird as seen randomly walking about.

    plus when your village has no stores... at all, well walking 50 km (most on the highway) isn't reasonable...

  5. Totally true. And, living in LA, we have more resistance to walking and perceived distance is so out of whack. D and I actually picked our neighborhood because of the walkability, so we don't have to drive at all to get to: the grocery store, good food, farmer's market, bank, drugstore, etc.

    Lately I've been contemplating walking to work. It's only a couple miles, but the route sucks! As in, I would have to walk under a freeway and across both the incredibly busy onramps and offramps, which don't have stop signs for the drivers, so I would just have to hope no one got distracted and ran me over. And there is no way around it! No side streets that go through, however circuitously, incredibly enough.

    So I have to balance my desire to walk and make a change (if I'm out walking, more people will be comfortable walking!) with the need to be safe. Ugh. Currently, I just take the bus.

  6. @Rachel I know, right? LA is so un-pedestrian friendly. it takes a full 8 minutes to walk across some of the intersections in Echo Park because of all the different signals for the CARS.

  7. Very interesting. I live out in the country. Walking anywhere is not an option. It takes 15 minutes just to drive to the grocery store. But the campus comparison is so true. I remember how walking from one side of campus to the other was such a pain. Yet my friends and I will easily treck from one place to another in downtown Asheville like its nothing.

  8. When I was younger, my mother drove me everywhere in the perimeter of our suburb just outside Chicago. She drove me to school (less than a mile away) to the pool, to friends' houses, etc. I never even thought to walk these distances ever, because they seemed to far to walk. But since I've moved back, I've realized it only takes 30 minutes to walk to the downtown section of the city - where the post office, library and Traders Joes are - and I've decided that if I have to go anywhere in this neighborhood, it's by foot or bike only. No exception (except on super huge grocery days, maybe...)!

  9. It's funny how people think walking is such an odd thing! I met a friend for tea the other day (and you should have SEEN the look I got for bringing a travel mug in the midst of the "Roll up the Rim to Win" competition- c'mon, like I'll win anyways!)

    The coffee shop is about a 12 minute walk- and my friend seemed so shocked that I hadn't driven!

  10. Curious about walking routes, I just Google-mapped my walking route this morning, that took me to a friend's house for breakfast and then to the train. Turns out I picked the longest option each time - AND, I got nearly 3 miles of walking in before going to work! My day was infinitely better having had that outdoors/ exercise time before jumping into meetings. We need to start a Walking Revolution - it's so easy, requires no fancy clothes or equipment, and gets you where you need to go!

  11. In summary to y'all:

    - yay for walking lifting our spirits & vehicular downsizing

    - there are all sorts of reasons why ppl drive vs walk, like lack of sidewalks in rural areas, and staring and sometimes distances don't just seem far, they really are too far to walk, so just keep on rocking with the walking when it makes sense to..

    - bicycling and public transportation are important alternative to cars. but wouldn't it be great if walking became normal again so people wouldn't stare? the more we walk, the more comfortable other people will be joining us, as Rachel points out.

    - how do you put up with the car culture in LA? i don't think i could live there because i'd get so frustrated by it.

  12. and Barefoot - i'm down for the Walking Revolution! you got 3 miles in before you started your day? i'm impressed.

  13. This is the one reason I wish I lived downtown. We live in a more rural area in Bloomington, IN, and we have to drive to get anywhere. I feel guilty constantly, but what can we do? The wonderful thing, though, is that we're far from all the noise and bustle of university life.

    As for walking, though, I love it. I don't think we do enough of it, so this post is a great way to remind us that walking is good for us! It reminds me of what a Buddhist writer -- can't remember his name at the moment -- wrote as far as walking with awareness. We need to relearn the simple pleasure of walking, of being one with the earth beneath us. j

    Thank you for this post!

  14. Ugh!

    I USED to be a walker. To and from work, the shops, everything, everyday, all weather. Then a certain someone who shall remain nameless forced me out into the boondocks, and we *had* to get a car and now we *have* to drive to do everything. Literally. (Except go to the pub, thank goodness.)

    I wish I could somehow not drive the 70mile return journey I do everyday, but this too shall pass...

  15. agirl - how excellent that the pub is within convenient walking distance! just what you need after a long day of commuting, eh?

    Juliana - thank you for this quote! "we need to relearn the simple pleasure of walking, of being one with the eart beneath us."