Why the perception of walking and biking should change

By Amy Jacobson Carver, WALC Institute Project and Marketing Coordinator

I love listening to my mom's stories about her youth. She grew up middle class in Duluth, Minnesota. My grandparents were not wealthy folk. My grandfather owned his own grocery store with his brothers. My grandmother stayed home and raised their three kids while also canning and pickling her homemade goodies which she would store for months in their basement. When I was a little girl, I remember being asked to retrieve certain items from her basement and as I descended into the darkness, desperately reaching out for the old dangle cord that would help provide a minor warm glow in order to navigate my way down the stairs, I remember looking over to my left to see all the cans and glass jars lining her banister and trying to figure out which one my grandmother wanted me to grab and bring upstairs. I was convinced monsters lived in her basement so the terror of that clouded my ability to locate what was needed and FAST.

My mom is now in her eighties. I cherish her stories as they provide me with not only a glimpse of my relatives that passed before I was born, but also how life was for her. My parents raised me in a place which required us to drive everywhere we went. When my mom was young, she walked everywhere she went whether to school, to the market, to her friend's houses or to shop, and most of the time, she was unaccompanied by an adult as far back as at the tender age of five. Most like to say, "well things were different back then" and yes they were in so many ways.

Like her brother and sister and friends, my mom walked to school a little more than a 1/2 mile each way and she actually did that four times a day in rain, sleet, hail or snow. If you aren't aware, Minnesota has a LOT of snow. Snow boots are a necessity. Where my mom lived, kids always went home for lunch unless there was a blizzard and then they were permitted to stay at school only if a parent could not come get them on those days, so by the time my mother was home in the evenings she had walked more than two miles.

My mother on the far left with her cousin and brother.

My mother on the far left with her cousin and brother.

Walking to school was the normal thing to do for my mom. She really knew nothing different. It was just a part of her day, her routine. She told me she never complained about it, it just was the way it was. My grandparents had one car. My mom might have been dropped off, but that was just not the norm of the time and where they lived. You walked where you went plain and simple. You played outside until dark or until you heard your mom scream for you to come in.

Today, many schools and businesses are built further from neighborhoods. Developers choose the "convenience" of cars over experience of using your own body motion. Everyone has their own reasons as to why they can't walk, bike or roll to get from point A to point B, but for some, especially those in lower socio-economic areas there may be no choice. Walking, biking or taking the bus is their only option. Believe it or not, some people just don't own cars. Many because they just can't afford one.

In many places, walking and biking is not safe for residents. Why? People just want to be able to walk out their front door without fear of being run-over or maybe shot at. We have forgotten or ignored populations that must navigate broken sidewalks, lack of crosswalks and dimly lit streets. Shouldn't everyone have the right to walk, bike or roll so they can learn, work or play and feel safe while doing it? Shouldn't everyone have the right to accessibility regardless of what is in their pocketbooks or wallets?

There is a stigma though regarding those that walk or bike to school or work. For many, the perception is that walking and biking is strictly a poor person's mode of transport, but in my perspective it is a smart person's. If more people thought of walking and biking as a privilege rather than an inconvenience, my guess is the tides would turn. What if the norm for our kids was to lace up their tennis shoes, sling on their back pack, step outside the front door and actually get to walk to the school or market? Maybe they'd have to get up 15-20 minutes earlier, but that is something they could get used to.

At WALC Institute, our philosophy is that if you build more roads, you get more cars, but if you build more sidewalks and bike lanes, you get more mentally and physically active people. You shave off a few extra pounds. Your blood pressure goes down and you even get to meet a few neighbors. Maybe, we need to take a few steps back in time in order for us to move forward.