Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Have you ever stopped to think just how crazy the idea of commute by car really is? Normal, peace-loving people step inside their cars with their coffee, begin driving, and within minutes are enacting a scene from Mad Max: Fury Road, swearing at their fellow drivers with language that would make a salty old sailor blush. Why do we treat our countryfolk with such blind hatred? My theory is that we do because it’s blind. I walk to work every day. I’ve never sworn at another pedestrian, but I’ve exchanged hellos, good mornings, and have been caught up in lengthy conversations about their dogs or the local balloon race. Driving a commute seems to remove the humanity from our roads because the inability to interact normally and the unpredictability of traffic creates stress until humans become like warring robots with their machines. Walking to work takes all this stress of transportation dependence away. While an airline pilot, I sometimes commuted by car, rail, plane, and rail again over hours of waiting, check-ins, bumped flights, tickets, and parking garages. All of this complexity meant any single delay meant I missed piloting my own flight later on and received an angry call from the Chief Pilot. After moving within walking distance of work, if my car doesn’t start, it’s not an emergency. I’m saving over 10,000 miles a year of commuting mileage, which also saves about 450 gallons of gas for my compact truck. For couples, even if one still has to commute by car, you can now consider going from two vehicles to one and save buying an entire car. Walking is a far more healthy lifestyle. Instead of sitting in my car seat of unhealthy stress and limited mobility, I’m walking through a neighborhood, watching the seasons change and letting the fresh air wake me up naturally (the cover photo above is one I took on a recent walk, before all the leaves fell off). A walk to work is not a commute. It’s just an nice excuse for a walk with a purpose. Instead of taking hours away from my life each week sitting and waiting at stoplights, I’m adding hours of exercise. Walking is the easiest activity that improves your health, your happiness, and your creativity all at once. Using those legs as their original design intended unlocks something within all of us. Many of my best ideas over the last year, including this website, happened while I was on a walk. In 2014, a Stanford study overwhelmingly demonstrated that not only does creativity improve while walking, but it maintains a residual effect afterward. Steve Jobs himself had a well-known trait of taking his guests on walks to discuss ideas. Another fascinating study of an Amish farming community in Ontario, Canada, published in 2004, attempted to compare the physical activity of our great-great-great-grandparents with our modern day counterparts by monitoring the amount of steps this Amish community took in a day, since their lifestyle hasn’t changed in the last 150 years (champions of no lifestyle inflation!). They found that men took an average of 18,425 steps per day and women took an average of 14,196 steps per day. Zero percent of the men were obese, and only nine percent of women were obese. In comparison, more than one in three Americans are considered obese (National Institute of Health) and the statistics keep getting worse every year.
The Quarry Rock hike in Vancouver, Canada (downtown is off in the distance), was a seamless, easy ride on public transit, even though I had to take a train, bus, and boat to get there.
Interestingly, the study explains that “The Amish diet is typical of the pre-World War II rural diet. It includes meat, potatoes, gravy, eggs, vegetables, bread, pies, and cakes, and is quite high in fat and refined sugar.” I’ve eaten Amish food as a guest and I can tell you that it’s better than any farm-to-table restaurant, very hearty, and very filling. It seems to me that eating real food without synthetics is an important difference between their food and the average American diet. However, their diet also shows that even if it’s delicious and buttery, it doesn’t matter much if your activity level can support it. Not only that, their life expectancy is near the national average, despite shunning most medical care. Go Amish folk. Does ditching your commute require any big decisions? In my case, yes. I owned a house and sold it, partly because I knew my life had the option of a nice walk to work from a nearby apartment building. There are other options I explored, like cycling to work, taking public transit, or moving as close to work as possible but still driving. While some options were improvements, I wouldn’t trade my 15-minute walk for anything else. You don’t depend on anything but your own two feet and maybe an umbrella. The most optimum way to organize your life around walking is to live closest to the things you drive to the most. For me, that’s work, the grocery, and the climbing gym. I walk to work five times a week and found that my frequency of going to the grocery went up because I actually enjoyed having another reason to go for a walk when the weather is nice. The climbing gym was the sacrifice because it’s not close to work and I only go twice a week. Are there any downsides? The first is minor – I’ve had a noticeable increase in shoe wear, but I’d rather spend money on shoes than tires. The largest downside is sharing the roads with the machines. If you thought people drove with blind hatred while you drove in your car, they are equally bad and untrustworthy while you’re trying to cross the street on foot. Disproportionate amounts of luxury car drivers barely stop or hit the accelerator while I’m not quite across. Other people blatantly run red stoplights after I’ve already started across the street. Some in the turning lane think it’s cute to creep ever closer toward me while I cross, especially if I’m crossing in front of their precious parking garage entrance. My solution has been to purposely set my walking course to avoid all intersections and focal points that drive people to idiocy. Fortunately, half of my walk is a very pleasant residential neighborhood with huge trees and almost no traffic and the other half I’ve tailored to follow pedestrian-friendly avenues. This is where city design can really make a difference and make pedestrians feel safer. After traveling to Copenhagen, Denmark, the charm of seeing one of the most pedestrian and cycling-friendly cities in the world has never left me. Their urban design principles are very intentional and focus on not only improving its resident’s lives, but preventing disorganized urban sprawl. We can find good design ideas from one of our closest neighbors. I was in Vancouver, Canada this summer and found an exceptional city design which allowed me to tour the entire city using clean and modern public transportation using bus, train, and ferry for a $10 CAD day pass ($7.50 USD at the time). I even made a trip to nearby Victoria without renting a car or even taking a taxi. But wait, you say, Copenhagen’s happiness-oriented urban design has been centrally planned since 1947; how can we turn this ship around? Just like we do with investments – we turn acorns into oak trees, but somebody has to plant the acorns and cultivate them. I’m inventing a new life goal called the Amish Steps Challenge. To succeed, we only have to exceed the Amish steps average in the study (we’ll round the numbers a bit). When is the last time you’ve won the Amish Steps Challenge for the day? I’ll be the first to say that my numbers need some work. Men: 18,000 Women: 14,000 To find this, we’ll need a steps-tracking tool. For those of you with the Apple iPhone, the data for counting your steps is already tracked (if you’re carrying it, of course). For Android users, try downloading Google Fit for an easy way to get started.
(iPhone Health app)
October was the last time I completed the Amish Steps Challenge with 19,591 steps. I was at Universal Studios instead of tending the farm that day. Even though I’m taking three walks with a minimum total of two miles a day, my Apple Health app often doesn’t make it above the 5,000 steps “sedentary” warning level set by the National Institute for Health. My record in the last year for one day is 29,180 steps while I walked all over Vancouver, Canada on vacation and tackled the Grouse Grind hike (“Mother Nature’s Stairmaster,” according to Vancouver’s promo literature, clearly aimed at fitness buffs). Clearly, I need to bring this up to an Amish level. How does your data compare to our Amish friends? See the absurdity of my life as I used to fly metal machines as an airline pilot in my next post, and why I chose to leave because it was crushing my health (link below).
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