Clear Lake, TX

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I wrote about the absence of pedestrians in an entry a while back, focusing on the lack of walking facilities in my neighborhood. Now, I find myself in a very different neighborhood. It does have sidewalks, but who’s walking?

I have been in Greater Houston for nearly month and have seen a total of 27 pedestrians on the road. There is no incentive to walk, because, as most people living in a suburban sprawl community with common sense know, to get anywhere that is anywhere you drive. But my roommate and I walk, because neither of us is old enough to rent a car.

It is an entirely isolating experience to walk in this city, because the only things around you are machines. The air often feels hostile, but mostly just downright awkward. We have been honked at seven times by cars driving by us. I reckon it’s because we stick out a whole lot.

The thing about walking when everyone else is driving is that you don’t see actual bodies or feel the warmth of their Southern hospitality, which is only apparent when you step into a store or a residence. There is a genuine disparity between the people living in the environment and the actual surroundings.

Because we’ve been walking almost daily, we experience seeing a full moon rising on one side of the sky and a bold, red sun setting on the other. We are accustomed to seeing white egrets perched on the trees of Egret Bay every evening to rest. We feel the warm, Southern breeze that we wish for our parents back home where snow piles up our front porch nearly two feet.

Because we’ve been walking, we’ve also been able to experience the community’s stores, restaurants and scenic areas much more intensely than if we drove by them. It means better business for small, independent businesses and more personal connections with the people under its roofs. If you are driving, you can’t wave to the storeowner. You can’t bump into your neighbors and start a conversation. You don’t notice every nook and cranny of your world.

I constantly imagine what this city would look like without the wide roads and the even wider parking lots. Could it be compressed into a much smaller version of what it is so that everything could be within walking distance? Or is the vast expanse of land too tempting for people to stay within confined limits? What if the city actually had a center? What if it was alive?

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These Boots Are Made For Walkin’

[9/7/09]

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My friend from England visited me in middle of nowhere, suburbia, MA recently and was astonished at how everything was “bigger” in America. That’s no surprise to anyone who has stepped out of his or her doors for a learning experience or two elsewhere. Everything is indeed bigger. The cars are bigger, the people are bigger, the houses and yards and bigger and the servings at restaurants are bigger.

But like everything there are exceptions to this rule. The sidewalks/pavements are smaller, or in many cases nonexistent. When I moved to the U.S. ten years ago, I experienced the same kind of confusion at why there are more people but fewer walking paths. It didn’t take me long to figure out it was because you couldn’t actually walk anywhere within a reasonable time frame. Of course, it still bothered that I was used to using sidewalks as the means to get places.

The 8-year-old me adapted quickly enough and accepted that walking was crossed off the list in favor of personal cars. I do think cars are wonderful in all sorts of ways. They are incredibly useful when you need to get somewhere – fast. It plays a key part in building our notion of how quickly life should move. Say I want to go to the supermarket, but I want to soak up the sun at the same time and get my exercise too. What happens is I realize how incredibly dangerous is it for me to make this trip, and I stop there.

Yesterday, my family took my friend into Boston where there are sidewalks. As we drove along the Charles River, we watched the people on the path beside us. There were joggers, more joggers, some bikers, a skateboarder and more joggers. No one was walking. OK, there were probably a few people here and there that were legitimately strolling, but I promise the majority of those people were not.

I don’t think everyone is uptight and rushed, but everything in our media and in our communities point to this. How many times have you seen a cell phone commercial that boasts how you’ll become the most efficient texting “machine” if you buy the phone or a service that “connects you faster than ever” to so and so? I’m betting probably a fair number of times. 

But we have the highest GDP in the world, don’t we? We work and live faster, because we grow faster? So let me ask you: Does this fact make you happier?

I challenge whoever is reading this to spend a day walking to their friend’s house or to the closest store. When you reach your destination, I hope that you will feel immensely satisfied by having made that walk. And I hope you’ll also feel some kind of achievement in it, because you put in effort to get there. I think it’s time to give a go. What do you think?