This October, Vital Communities is joining organizations across the country in celebrating “Walktober” – a time to celebrate how great it is to be able to get places on foot. Walkable neighborhoods, traffic calming, and smart growth that puts residents near businesses and services are just some of the ways we Americans can reclaim our streets for walkers. In this post, Ellen Hender, part of our Transportation and Housing team, shares a family story. See other Walktober stories here.
While carpooling the other day with some colleagues, we were talking about walking and biking as kids and the pivotal moment of getting your license. We wondered if it would change perspectives on how we plan our communities if we were able to delay that moment when people switch from their feet or bike to a car.
Growing up, I lived just a couple blocks from my elementary school so I walked to school from kindergarten through 5th grade. But I recall a newfound freedom and sense of independence when I was old enough to walk longer distances. I remember the first time I walked to the convenience store with a friend when I was in middle school. I bought a bag of chips, a seemingly mundane and trivial thing but I can still feel the thrill of it. Fast forward to high school, and I remember the time my dad was running late from picking me and a friend up from our little downtown area so we just walked back to my house. These adventures felt big and the distance seemed significant. Recently, I mapped them for perspective. The convenience store was just .8 miles from my childhood home and the downtown 1.6 miles. Not a short distance, but not massive either.
I didn’t get my license until I was 18. I knew I wasn’t going to get a car and was happy enough walking around or getting rides from others. It was nice when I finally got it, but it didn’t feel as exciting as those early independent walks. And I didn’t use my license much, as only a few months later I went off to college near New York City. Trains, subways, and more walks were my norm. I’d routinely choose to walk a couple of miles to save the couple of bucks on the subway ride. It wasn’t until moving to Vermont almost 13 years ago that I became car-dependent, not including one year spent in Burlington when I was able to return to my walk-everywhere-roots.
I now found myself having to drive to work, to grocery stores, to medical appointments, to socialize, and, perhaps a bit ironically, to hike. But every now and then I’m able to find some walkable moments. The days I work in the office I enjoy the walk down Main Street to get a coffee or the ability to walk to the Town Hall for a meeting. Not often, but a few times I’ve enjoyed a walk from my home to restaurants near Quechee Gorge which is just a touch longer than the walk I used to have to the downtown where I grew up. Perhaps my favorite walk is picking my kids up from daycare. Our provider is just 1 mile away. When the weather’s nice it’s the perfect way to soak up some sun and be car-free for a whole day. Our daycare provider even lent us a double-wide stroller to make it easier (except for that especially steep part of the hill!) when we had our second kid. Thankfully, the oldest can now handle the walk and I only have to push one.
However, I do wonder if I’d walk the route more often if it were more walkable. My road doesn’t have sidewalks, but is essentially a dead end so traffic is minimal and most folks are good about not going too much above the 25 mph limit — the keyword being “most.” They recently added a bike/ped sign after a neighbor raised concerns about some fast drivers. The least walkable part is the short stretch right by the daycare provider’s house. The speed limit there is 35 mph, there is a curve that doesn’t have great visibility, and the shoulder is narrow and gets swallowed up by plant growth in the summer. To avoid that especially tough curve I often walk on the “wrong side” of the road for those 100 feet or so where there is a wider shoulder that doesn’t get as overgrown. If it were just me walking, I would feel comfortable. But having a stroller and a 5-year-old navigating it as well makes it more stressful. I’d love for the road to be more pedestrian-friendly, but it also important is for drivers to stay aware and drive safely so that we can all get where we’re going in whatever mode of transportation we choose.
I took advantage of the warm start to October and enjoyed a walking pick-up the other day. My mom was visiting and she joined me. When I arrived my oldest excitedly ran up to me saying, “You finally walked to get me! We get to walk home!” With all the rain and just generally being busy, I hadn’t walked to get them much this summer. I hadn’t realized how much my kiddo missed it. Perhaps he’s feeling the beginnings of the independence and freedom our feet can bring us.