Note: This post has been sitting around in draft form for longer than expected, thus references to dates are likely to have inadvertently been turned into lies.
I conducted an experiment. It’s an experiment I’ve been meaning to carry out for a while now, but it involves getting up a little earlier in the morning than I usually do. Getting up in the morning isn’t something I have a natural aptitude for, and so it is understandable that getting up even earlier than normal was something the core of me abhorred.
On Tuesday this week, I managed to drag my protesting body out of the bed in time to eat breakfast and leave for the office on foot.
I could’ve risen at the usual time and just left for work when I normally do without my car, but then I’d have arrived late. Arriving late means staying late, and since I’d have walked to work I’d be needing to walk back home.
Since I live in Johannesburg, I didn’t feel to comfortable walking home late at night.
I set out into the suburb by taking a short-cut past the dam that my property overlooks, instead of leaving home via the main entrance and walking a circular route to get back to the main road.
Walking on the grass next to the dam, feeling the wind on my face and hearing the birds chirping was something I missed out on while driving. The squeaky noises from the yapper-dogs, who disrupted the serenity with their barking, were less appreciated. The barking soon faded away behind me, and I paid it very little attention.
As I approached the road I noticed a great number of cars parked along-side it. That was my first impression, but I quickly realised that the reality of the matter was not that the cars were parked, but rather that they were stationary. Occupants resigned to their fate of slow, painful progress up the hill to the stop street. Slow, painful progress turning left into the next road, and then excruciatingly slow and painful progress of turning left on to the M5 and trundling along towards the turn-off to the highway. Most cars had only one occupant, and they all seemed so lonely and detached.
I walked passed them all.
Probably it is only fair that I point out how close I live to my place of work. Most people work a lot further from their homes than I do, and so walking to work is likely to impact dramatically on their commuting time.
I live about 3.5km from my office, yet I’ve been driving there every day. The walk took me roughly 40 minutes and, considering my life has lapsed into a somewhat more sedentary style, if I did it every day it would be an excellent substitute for dragging myself off to the gym. Remember that I’d be walking back at the end of the day too.
For those who try to make as much distance between their homes and their offices as possible (probably due to hating their jobs inordinately) the challenge of walking to work is much greater.
Most of those people probably haven’t explored the possibility of driving their vehicles to a certain point, and walking the rest of the distance. How practical that might be will vary from person to person.
Angie has tried it by leaving the car at a conveniently placed shopping centre (positioned where the traffic starts to get unpleasant) and walking the rest of the way to her office.
My walk to the office was invigorating. I was outside, in the world. Feeling and experiencing it more fully. I wasn’t enclosed in my personal confinement capsule, detached from other people. I wasn’t able to delude myself that those other people were not really people, but arseholes who conspire to ruin my drive to work by cutting me off.
I couldn’t do this because I walked passed people on the street, and if I wanted I could reach out and touch them (they might have been a bit alarmed by this though). I confirmed their existence as real, living people — not obstacles in my way to my destination. They were the ingredients that added to the richness of my journey.
I could interact with these people. If I said “hello” they greeted me back (sometimes with puzzled looks on their faces, other times with more enthusiasm). Not one of the people I greeted ignored me or showed me the contempt that other drivers showed me when I drove my car.
A white guy walking to work in South Africa is quite a rarity and because of this I had one guy whistle to me from across the road. Once I spotted him, he seemed abundantly happy and waved at me enthusiastically. I returned the gesture.
What a rosy picture I paint. There were a few drawbacks though. Something unavailable to the pedestrian is the driver’s isolation. I’ve just shown how isolation is a bad thing, but isolation also allows the occupants of the vehicle to keep exhaust fumes out of their lungs by closing those air-vents. I could wear a gas-mask with a filter of some sort, but I think people would be more inclined to cross the road to get away from me when I attempt to greet them.
Walking is exercise, and depending on the ambient temperature, perspiration ensues. I forget to apply deodorant at my peril (or possibly everyone-in-my-office’s peril).
Walking hurts the feet, but that’s just because I don’t do it every day. I’m upgrading this experiment to a habit, and so I think my feet will get used to it (although they do ache a little at the end of the day at the moment, and I have a blister).
Pavements and sidewalks are in short supply. Apparently municipalities don’t expect people to walk any where near a road. Roads are for cars, and everyone important has a car, right? There are some pavements scattered about, but the effort to lay pavements has been organised in a very decentralised manner. A little pavement here, and then long stretches of heavily eroded dusty footpaths.
I’d like to say that if more people walked, then more pavements would be laid, but that’s ridiculous since most people in South Africa walk to work, or walk to catch a taxi which takes them to a point where they must walk to work. Understandably, pavements might not be a top priority in South Africa, but maybe they could be nudged up the list a little. Expect more on this pavement issue in a future post.
Smokers stuck in the traffic get nervous and need a cigarette but find they have none left. They might ask you for a cigarette as you walk by. This isn’t really a drawback, but since I’m not a smoker I felt bad not being able to ease their pain just a little.
As with everything, there are positive and negative aspects. My contention is that the positives of walking to work easily trump the negatives. I’ll be walking from now on, unless I need the car to get to a meeting or something, because driving to work is stupid.
You should try it too. Probably walking to work (or taking public transport) will be too much for you to do every single day. That’s not a problem. Try it for one day. If it works out ok, try it another day. Set a goal to get to work by alternative means once a week, or once a month.
At the very least, even if you decide not to adopt the behaviour, you managed to experience something different.
 I lie. We’ve simulated this when I needed the car and dropped her off at the mentioned shopping centre. The end result is the same though.