Walking for the Long Term

Recently, my wife and I had dinner at the home of a work colleague, where we met his wife as well. I’ve worked with him for a number of years but hour respective spouses had not met us or each other. You go into these social situations with a bit of nerves because you want to hit it off but you’re never quite sure. In this case, it was great – a simple, tasty yet slow meal, enjoyed while sitting for hours at the table chatting till midnight.

I thought of that as I was out for a walk the next day. The pleasure of a simple meal, good chat, laughter and smiles. I like simple things, and I like enjoying them at leisure, like reading a good book for hours of an evening while sipping on a whiskey in front of the fire. And I like long walks, for similar reasons – they’re simple, and yet they are savoured slowly, providing ample time for uncluttered thought. Over the space of several recent walks, on grey and glooming November days, I mulled over some recent news items I’ve seen recently.

The first one was about an announcement by the Ontario government, for a plan to build another major highway and then later for a different proposal to widen one of the major highways in the west end of the Greater Toronto Area. These projects have been mooted for years, and there’s a debate about whether to go ahead with their construction. The argument for is that traffic loads have increased so that more roads are needed to reduce congestion and delays. The argument against is the opposite – that building more roads just increases their supply which effectively lowers the price of driving (i.e. congestion delays) thus creating new demand that soon results in new congestion and delay. In other words, increasing the supply induces demand by reducing price – a basic piece of economics. This might also be phrased as “if you build it, they will come”.

Another recent thought-provoking news item was about Artificial Intelligence (AI). We’re heading quite quickly into a world where AI can power transport. Likely within the next 10-20 years, as cars become more autonomous, AI systems will improve traffic efficiency – in other words more cars can use existing roads. Taking humans out of the equation will also help us reduce and then eliminate the impatience and selfishness that leads to shake-your-head silliness like driving on sidewalks (which really happened recently just a few blocks from where I live).

At the same time, young people do not seem to be driving as much as their parents did nor seem as interested in owning a vehicle (based on a sample size of 1, our son, in mid-town Toronto). Plus, jobs are changing, so that we’re much more able to telecommute rather than physically commute. And then there’s the retirement of the boomer generation (which grew up with cars), and their workplace replacements see less need to drive, especially as public transit improves. All these trends argue that at the very least, traffic patterns are likely to change, if not reduce in volume.

On top of all of this there’s climate change, the cause for which the overwhelming weight of evidence points to carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels. Cars, and other forms of transport (trucks especially), are one of Canada’s largest sources of carbon dioxide, especially when you take into account the extraction of oil, its transportation, and its refinement into fuel. Adding to that, remember that building roads by itself generates a lot of CO2 emissions – making cement for concrete is an energy-intensive process largely fuelled by natural gas, and asphalt is held together by bitumen tar which comes from petroleum.

So the notion of building more highways, now, at this point of the 21st century, seems like a reactive response to a “today” problem based on the practice from 20 years ago, rather than a proactive response to head off anticipated problems 20 years from now. In other words, it’s backwards-looking decision making. Between advances in AI, changes in demographics, and the need to respond to climate change, it would seem to make more sense to invest the billions of dollars a new highway will cost into better public transit and urban planning.

All that seemed clear to me as I turned over these thoughts on my walks. And then, shortly after the announcements about these highway projects, I saw a much less publicized article about a plan to improve and expand the Waterfront Trail sections near the Scarborough Bluffs, an area through which I had walked this past summer and about which had thought at the time that it was both spectacular and under-utilized. Hallelujah I thought – induced demand strikes again. If you build trails and parks, then walkers will appear.

And that led me back to why I walk. Walking is a simple and self-contained activity – it needs no real equipment or practice, it accomplishes a goal, it requires minimal infrastructure, and it benefits both the practitioner and their fellow citizens. Long term thinking about walking abounds – there is an abundance of urban planning studies, social studies, and practical evidence that making neighbourhoods and cities walkable increases the well-being of the residents.

What gives me hope is that over the past 10-20 years, we’ve seen an increase in walking and cycling infrastructure. Volunteer-led organizations have mapped out, built, and maintained the Great Trail, the Waterfront Trail, and the Bruce Trail, and thousands of other local organizations have created recreational trails throughout Canada. There is a groundswell of interest in and demand for walking infrastructure.

It’s true that there are fewer opportunities for political grandstanding and ribbon-cutting when a new trail opens. The local city councillor and maybe a provincial MPP will show up for a quick photo and that’s about it, compared to premiers and prime ministers who host press conferences and photo ops in hard hats while holding silver shovels, whenever a new highway is announced. Hundreds of walkers will use the former, but hundreds of thousands of voters will use the latter, so where’s the sexy in opening a $2 million trail when you can cut the ribbon on a $2 billion highway?

Still, I see that as blockbuster thinking rather than incremental thinking, big splashy announcements instead of quiet openings. We know from studies in geology and from biology, that evolutionary forces are powerful yet slow-moving. There are few occasions (dinosaur-killing asteroid strikes aside) when evolution must pick up its pace. Long-term, slow changes are the norm. So in why does our decision making insist on quick wins, big announcements, and the timescales of one election to the next? In human terms, long-term ought to mean generational thinking – 20, 50, or 100+-year timespans. Does it help you now, or does it help your great-grandchildren?

We focus on the now, it seems to me, because that our time horizons have shrunk. We want to shop on-demand, eat on-demand, and entertain ourselves on-demand. Why defer gratification? Why can’t we have it now?

What does a walk have to do with this? Part of the answer is that a walk takes time. As a form of exercise, walking is a slow burn activity – you need a 2 hour walk to burn off similar amounts of calories from a 30 minute high intensity work-out. That’s why walking encourages long-term thinking, because it just takes a while to do it. If I want to walk to Montreal (and that’s on my bucket list), it’s going to take 3-4 weeks instead of 3-4 hours.

Plus walking is green. It’s human-powered and needs minimal infrastructure and equipment. Our ancestors walked barefoot over grasslands, and we can walk with just a pair of shoes over gravelled paths. Building a few km of simple trail, even if you include some park benches, waste bins, toilets, and water fountains, doesn’t cost much because it doesn’t take much effort or equipment. And that also means it’s quick, a concession to our instant gratification culture.

All of this means that walking for the long term has multiple levels. On timescales of hours, walking for the long term is about contemplation, finding space to think and consider and survey multiple points of view before coming to conclusions. On timescales of months and years, walking for the long term is about exercise and health and retaining the ability to contemplate. And on timescales of decades and generations, walking for the long term is about the conservation of resources, creating a legacy for future generations, and attempting to avoid the worst consequences of the now-inevitable changes in climate that we’ve sparked.

Deep thoughts from a few walks on grey days. Maybe I need another stroll to mull it over.

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