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Monique Keiran: Walking doesn’t get its proper respect

Last year, Paul Glassen of Nanaimo wrote to me: “We all walk in the first couple years of life, many start cycling and riding buses in grade school. We don’t drive the auto until we are in our later teens.

Last year, Paul Glassen of Nanaimo wrote to me: “We all walk in the first couple years of life, many start cycling and riding buses in grade school. We don’t drive the auto until we are in our later teens. Why do we call walking, cycling and transit ‘alternative transport’? Clearly, they are primary transportation, and the auto is the alternative.”

Glassen’s reasoning plays on the order in which people adopt ways of moving during their lives. As such, walking — by itself — would indeed be the primary form of transportation. Cycling or public transit would be the secondary and tertiary modes of transport, and driving, the quaternary form. Crawling, abandoned once we’re upright, loses its initial place in our early years.

According to Statistics Canada, 10 per cent of Victoria-area residents walk to and from work most days — the highest percentage in any Canadian city. In Halifax, Kingston and Ottawa, where winter smothers the landscape for four to eight months each year, 7.1 to 8.5 per cent of commuters rely on walking. Metro Vancouver comes in sixth, with 6.3 per cent of people commuting on foot.

The same survey found that many more people everywhere drive to work.

Of course, we walk not just to commute. We walk to exercise. We walk for recreation. We walk to the bank, the grocery store and, beginning this year, more of us will walk to pick up the mail from our new community mailboxes. Many of us also walk to the bus stop or parking lot.

At some point, cyclists, car-poolers, transit users and drivers put their feet on the ground and move away from their machines. Most of them walk from where they leave their wheels — at the bike lockup, the parking lot or the bus stop — to their workplaces and to shops and buildings where they have business.

If forms of transportation are ranked by their universality and number of people who use them, walking would, again, be defined as the primary form of transportation.

Yet, it often remains overlooked as a viable form of getting from here to there in most North American cities. Urban-transportation surveys rarely capture the walking component of other forms of transport. Few conversations at municipal planning meetings and during elections address the needs of pedestrians. Long walks taken for purposes other than recreation tend to be viewed as reasons to pity the walker.

Not only is walking overlooked, it is undervalued.

A 2014 report by Todd Litman of the Victoria Transport Planning Institute lists a number of reasons for this. These include walking’s low cost, its lack of status and that it will occur whether or not facilities are provided. Another reason Litman puts forth is that the amount of walking that occurs in a community is difficult to measure.

This, then, becomes a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Humans measure what they value, and value what they measure. The very act and effort of measuring add value to what is being measured.

But if an activity remains difficult to measure — in terms of amount or frequency of occurrence, number of participants, dollars spent and other direct or indirect effects — humans tend not to bother.

That not bothering contributes further to walking’s image. It is often seen as being, well, pedestrian — unremarkable, uninteresting and unworthy of attention. The human mind, with its sometimes-sideways psychology, associates the adjective’s unflattering, prosaic definition with the activity.

But effort and ability to measure walking are changing. Public-health researchers are investing in investigations into walking, to identify and quantify the health benefits of walking in communities.

Economists are beginning to track how community walking-friendliness is related to success of local businesses. Statistics Canada includes walking in its household surveys. Cities are developing plans that at least mention pedestrian needs, and engineers and urban planners are starting to redesign roadways and communities to encourage walking.

Ever so slowly, walking is shedding its poor-cousin image and becoming a recognized and encouraged form of transportation.

It still, however, has a way to go before decision-makers treat it as a primary form of transportation.

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