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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.

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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