I’ve come to realize that a long walk alone with some music or falling snow is essential to my happiness. I make an effort to place myself at least 20 minutes away from home daily because the walk back invariably ends up being total zen, quite often constituting the best moments of my day.
If you feel the need to slow the world down walking is just the ticket. When walking, the only thing you can do is enjoy the journey. For me, this means the minute I set out any deadlines or pressures are momentarily lifted. The world stops moving and nothing else matters except one foot in front of the other. There is no point fussing and fretting about how much work you need to do when you reach your destination or feeling guilty about wasting time. Walking is progress. It’s a satisfying accomplishment: point A to point B. It's an opportunity for my mind to release and flit around to all the thoughts that I’ve been trying to block out while staring at a screen or page of writing. Walking fills me with gratitude: for my warm jacket and the cool air; for the people and moments that have conspired to put me here; for the chance to spend my days slowly chipping away at big problems. Walking forces me to appreciate what’s up with the trees today and how the air feels on my cheeks. I become very aware that I’m human and every day is just a day. Walking makes me want to drop off my bag and keep walking forever.
As a planning student and urbanist, I’m a huge proponent of walkability. Generally, it is accepted that people are willing to walk to places within a quarter-mile radius (half-mile radius if centred on a transit hub) which is perceived as a five-minute-walk.* This metric is sometimes disputed on the basis that good urban design and interesting streetscapes can generate a greater willingness to walk.** Also, I believe university towns can get away with more dispersion because young people are willing to walk further.*** When it comes to groceries and a corner store, I totally support the quarter-mile walkability goal. Carrying heavy bags of yogurt and canned chickpeas for miles is the pits. To be honest though, I’d prefer my classes or library to be a good 40 minute walk away (if it’s a pleasant, quiet walk). I think it makes me a better person and provides a reason to reflect and explore the area.
Obviously this is easy for me to say as a young, healthy, mobile person. I don’t propose making commuting distances longer than they should be, but I would like to put the question out there: how do you feel about walking? How does it affect your relationship with your immediate built and natural environment? Are you a happier, calmer person because of your commute, or does the trip from home to work/school stress you out (and do you travel by foot, bike, car, bus, streetcar, etc.)?
* This is pretty widely acknowledged, but I came across it in the Sprawl Repair Manual, by Galina Tachieva.
** There are a number of studies that have explored this. Steve Mouzon does a great job explaining.
*** I recall hearing or reading this from Andres Duany but I can't find the link, so don't hold me or him accountable to that until I identify the source.