May 20, 2006

Walking to Work

I walk to work as many days as I can. It’s about a three mile trip and takes me just under an hour. I’ve been doing this for about two years. As exercise, it replaces the jogging I did in the middle of the day. But, I also walk to reduce the number of miles I drive, for the social and environmental benefits that creates. Before I went to work on the West Side, I worked at the Capitol Campus. I lived almost to the crest of the Harrison hill, so that walk was shorter than the one I now have. I walked to work most of the time in those days. Walking to work, as an experience, is quite different from using a car.

The first thing that people mention when we talk about the walk is the weather. While I carry some gear to help with the weather, experiencing it is one of the things that I like about walking. Now, we don’t have very dangerous weather around here and it’s really severe only a few times a year, so, generally, the weather is a problem only if you think it is. I like it.

For me, the thing that most influences what the walk is like is the separation from the traffic. It won’t come as a revelation to anyone that our streets are built for cars, not people walking. And a lot of those streets don’t provide pedestrians enough separation from the cars for comfort. Separation can be vertical, like a curb, horizontal distance, or structures, like a barrier. My usual route to work provides a range of separations, from almost nothing (a narrow bike lane with no curb and a ten foot drop at the edge), to all three, as when I walk down a walkway through an empty strip mall.

The second factor that provides annoyance is, of course, the traffic – how many cars there are, how fast they’re going, and how much attentive the drivers are. Separation, of course, insulates one from traffic, so these factors diminish as separation increases. Still, there are times when there is no separation, most often when I have to cross the street. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how easy it’s been to cross the streets, including the busiest intersection in town. Except for some folks turning right, I’ve had very few troubles at intersections, which is a big improvement from when I jogged on these same streets. Traffic has an influence on the walk even when I’m not crossing it. Walking against traffic along Cooper Point in the afternoon is unpleasant. The sidewalk is not very wide, there’s no strip between the sidewalk and the curb, the traffic is heavy and it’s traveling at 35, most of the time. I generally avoid that route.

One of the advantages of walking is that you see your town differently, in more detail. And some parts of town are more interesting, more pleasant to walk through. None of the routes I have to work are unpleasant in the sense of being dirty or dangerous, but some are more interesting than others. The walk I used to do over the Fourth Ave. Bridge and through downtown was most interesting. Even though the traffic was bad and the separation worse, the bridge was a high point, because of the views out over the bay and the waves of migrating birds passing through spring and fall. The walk I now do doesn’t have the interest of the bridge and downtown, but it still has some features. The most important is that I have several routes to choose from. Some of them pass through alleys, which are mellow and interesting. The part of the walk that skirts the mall, above Yauger Park, offers a good vista of the Black Hills and any approaching weather.

And walking offers the best chance to see some birds and animals. The bridge, as I mentioned before, offered a regular series of migratory birds as they passed through. Last year, I saw a set of four raccoons working their way down by the mall toward Yauger Park. Earlier this year, I saw another crossing Cooper Point Rd. ahead of me. The alleys usually, if the weather’s good, offer the chance to see a few cats lounging in the sun. I regularly see rabbits near my work and around Percival Creek. A run-off retention pond by the Auto Mall supported a redwing blackbird for several years, though he seems to have moved on this year. There were a couple of killdeer hanging around that same pond, more recently. And, the skies sometimes offer a glimpse of a hawk or an eagle soaring overhead, if you only look up.

It’s a lot easier to look up if you’re not in your car. And it’s easier to stop and stare if you’re not in traffic.

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