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A Surprisingly Walkable Neighborhood

Blogger's note: This essay was written for the newsletter of WALKSanDiego.

I try to be a fair journalist but WALKSanDiego is an organization to which I may show a little favor. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I’m an environmental puritan who thinks we need to get out of our cars to save the planet. Second, I just think it’s cool to be able to get around town on my own power.

Tom Fudge has become the host of Morning Edition, and he will no longer write...
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Above: Tom Fudge has become the host of Morning Edition, and he will no longer write the blog On-Ramp.

This ethos has made me a pay a price that’s gone beyond the sweat I’ve had to burn and the few extra minutes it’s taken me to get places. I rode my bike to work for a couple of years until I got hit by a car, suffered traumatic brain injury and spent a week in the trauma ward at Scripps Mercy Hospital. This happened in April of 2007. It was the end of my biking days.

Since then, I have spent more time traveling afoot. Until recently, I lived in Normal Heights. It’s a neighborhood full of small lots and single-family bungalows. Normal Heights is bisected by Adams Avenue, the urban version of a small town main street where you can find a library, a post office, a full-service grocery store and many other shops and services that are all within an easy walk.

Normal Heights is renowned for its walkability. In fact, I was recruited by some phys-ed scholars at San Diego State to take part in a study of whether people who lived in walkable neighborhoods get more exercise than people who lived in car-dependent places. For about a month I wore a small electronic pack, strapped to my arm, which recorded my physical activity. A couple of people asked me if I was supposed to wear it while having sex. The research materials didn’t give me a clear answer.

Sadly, I left walkable Normal Heights about six months ago and moved to El Cerrito. It’s about half a mile south of San Diego State and sidles up along El Cajon Boulevard.

Though it’s only a couple miles from Normal Heights, El Cerrito is much more suburban. There’s less traffic and the houses and lots are bigger. The main commercial street, El Cajon Boulevard, is at least a five-block walk from me. The part of the boulevard I’m closest to has a motley collection of low-rent establishments that I’m unlikely to use. There’s a Von’s grocery store on El Cajon. But it’s a mile away and that’s not walking distance.

Or is it?

The answer to that question has surprised me and it’s changed my whole view of what “walkable neighborhood” means.

When you get in a car and drive a mile it seems like more than a mile. Driving confounds the senses. But a reality check tells you that walking a mile takes between 15 and 20 minutes if you set a brisk but unhurried pace. From my home, it’s a mile to Von’s and a mile to KPBS, where I work.

Doing these mile hikes has taught me the extra time it takes to walk is just not that great. Plus, it’s good exercise. I used to belong to a gym on the SDSU campus that was, again, about a mile away. I soon realized that I could either drive to the gym, run on the treadmill and then drive back home. Or I could walk to the gym, stand in the doorway for a minute, then turn around and walk home.

Both things took about the same amount of time and gave me about the same amount of exercise. I cancelled my gym membership.

About seven years ago I spent two weeks in central London and I was struck by how fit people were. Was it the diet? Was it because they had less poverty and better health care? I think it was because they walked so much.

The great majority of working people in that city get around on public transit. But that doesn’t mean you catch a bus right outside your flat and it takes you to the doorstep of your workplace. In London it means walking to the subway stop, changing trains at a transfer station where the next platform is at the end of a very long tunnel, then walking another quarter to a half mile to your final destination.

The walking Londoners do is tremendous and it keeps them fit. My point is that walking is a twofer. It keeps you healthy and it saves the planet by reducing your use of carbon fuels. Okay, I’m talking like a puritan again! But if you don’t think you live in a walkable neighborhood, give it second look.

Like me, you may discover that there are quite a few things within a mile radius of where you live. Leave a few more footprints and you’ll reduce your carbon footprint, and you may be able to cancel a gym membership.

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Avatar for user 'hopeheadsd'

hopeheadsd | April 14, 2011 at 8:25 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Hi Tom, big fan of "On Ramp". I agree completely. Having lived in NYC most of my life and as I got older living in Europe, it became far clearer how much I missed walking after moving to San Diego and having to commute to work by automobile. I did live in the downtown/gaslamp area for the better part of 6 years when I first got here to SD and adjusted very well to our urban life. When I bought my house, I made sure that I was within a fair walking distance to a trolley stop. I suppose from an outsiders perspective, I had no preconceived notions about urban life in SD. I was more adept to managing "getting around town" by utilizing mass transit, walking and biking in other cities. I am also naive enough to really compare SD to other cities. I have learned that in all my years getting around, most of our time when we are not working is being within close proximity to where we live. This is why walkability is so important in our auto centric culture. I really do think we will head into this direction in San Diego and as the baby boomer generation dwindles, the younger generations will embrace knowing that they have multiple means of transport besides a car.

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Avatar for user 'Tom Fudge'

Tom Fudge, KPBS Staff | April 14, 2011 at 9:52 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Hopehead. The thing I've realized is what great exercise walking is... low impact, relaxing... and that walking distances up to a mile is not an undue drain on your time or physical energy. Naturally, there are parts of San Diego that are so suburban and so devoted to single-use development that you really can't get anywhere without a car or, at the very least, a bike. San Diego society has has put us in a tough situation when it comes to walking, due to its expectations and it's development of communities. When you're on the job, telling people you'll be late for a meeting because it requires a half-hour walk is unacceptable. "Don't you have a car?" they'd surely say. Like you, I hope new generations and evolving values will change our hurry-up culture to something that's healthier and more environmentally friendly.

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Avatar for user 'WilfredoP'

WilfredoP | April 14, 2011 at 9:08 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Great article, Tom! I've traveled extensively through Europe and I've also noticed that Europeans overall are far slimmer than Americans. (However, the British are the heaviest Europeans, although they are still slimmer than Americans.) One reason is that European cities are very conducive to walking. You could literally walk across London, Paris, Rome or Madrid. Try that in San Diego and you'd get hit by a car. There are other factors that explain why obesity is such a problem here and not in Europe. One factor is that Europeans consume higher quality foods than we do--it's fresher and more natural than typical American food. Europeans emphasize the quality of food; we often emphasize the quantity. Another factor is that portions are smaller there. I should say that food portions in Europe are normal. That includes drinks. If you want a refill on your Coke or iced tea, you have to pay for it. So there's a strong disincentive to get refills.

Anyway, I live in a typical suburban neighborhood in Chula Vista. I'm too far from stores to walk to them. If I want to walk, I have to drive to Rohr Park. That's a 3.3 mile walk that I try to do several times per week. But that's not enough. Studies of hunter-gatherers have determined that men walk an average of nine miles per day and women walk an average of six! Sadly, it's not in our culture to walk as a form of "transportation." We really need to empasize walking more. It is the most natural form of exercise and is very effective. I think that if we walked three or more miles several times per week, we would substantially improve our health.

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Avatar for user 'walkorbikeweekend'

walkorbikeweekend | April 15, 2011 at 9:46 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago


I couldn’t agree more. It’s time for a major paradigm shift and perhaps rising gas prices will give us a gentle but firm nudge. My family and I live in San Carlos and the majority of the places we frequent are within 2.5 miles (5 RT), meaning we can either walk or ride our bikes. We’ve been run/walking our daughters to school (4 miles RT), biking to the market, walking to church and haven’t felt this happy since traveling to London and Paris. I started a FB page called Walk or Bike Weekend!/pages/Walk-or-Bike-Weekend/116411165104771 .

As an aside, I’m so thankful you’re doing well and producing such important work.

Best wishes,

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Avatar for user 'IreneSD'

IreneSD | April 15, 2011 at 1:05 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Walking is good exercise and allows a person to appreciate a neighborhood, people, flowers, cacti, small businesses. I missed walking during a long illness. Now I'm building up to a 1.5K Liver Life Walk for American Liver Foundation, May 14th at the SD Zoo. Maybe next year I can do the 5K walk. The hardest thing for me is carrying things. Even wheeled shopping bags bring neck and shoulder pain. I keep devising strategies: rarely purchase liquids, since a half-gallon of milk is very heavy; carry just a few pens or pencils and a few sheets of sketching paper in a shoulder pouch. What a pleasure it is to walk with just my keys in my pocket! Your post reminds me to replace the battery on my pedometer. Stay well. I've often enjoyed your radio shows.

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Avatar for user 'sdurban'

sdurban | April 15, 2011 at 9:05 p.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Hi Tom, great post, thanks. I'm jealous that you can walk to work!

Another thing to consider with "longer" walks is that the surrounding environment can influence one's decision on whether to embark on it. I'm guessing your neighborhood has interesting houses to look at during your walk, and relatively light/slow traffic. Compare that to walking on a sidewalk on a feeder road in the newer suburbs, where it's just you, a wall, and lots of cars speeding past at 60+ mph. I might want to go for a walk if I lived in say, Eastlake, but it's hardly an enjoyable one, and the distances to something rewarding are often much more than a mile (as the post above mentioned).

Glad you like your new neighborhood, we'll miss you in Normal Heights. And thanks again for the flagstone installer reference!

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Avatar for user 'ginya55'

ginya55 | April 21, 2011 at 9:10 a.m. ― 5 years, 11 months ago

Hi Tom;

I believe walking truly is the best form of exercise not only for the body but for the mind and spirit.

Six years ago I retired, from teaching then gave my car away to a family in need. Then I moved from a small northern californian rural community where I had access to many of the open space hiking trails which I took full advantage on a weekly basis. The peace and serentity not to mention the views were simply put...wonderful. One time I hiked all the way from Fairfax, Ca. to Bolinas. 8 hours it took. After a quick swim in the ocean & lunch I hitched a ride home. What a day. I can't even imagine what it was like for John Muir.

Now I live in San Diego across from Balboa Park. My walks consist of the park and the concrete jungle all the way to the Midway past Petco circling back up Sixth Ave. before the Gaslamp businesses open.

It's wonderful. I love the peace of the early morning hours.

Happy Easter!

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