Just under a year ago, I was part of a special course where we hosted a group of students from Malmo, Sweden for a week, and then went to Sweden for a week of classes there. I walked more in those two weeks (and the third week while travelling around Western Europe with a friend) than I ever have in that timeframe before, and while I would never put my feet through quite that much torture again, my positive experience there made me truly realize how much North Americans rely on cars, and even busses and other forms of public transit to get around, and since then I’ve naturally found myself walking and using other forms of active transit more than ever.
While the Swedes were here in London, they weren’t afraid of the 20 minute walk to the grocery store, and they weren’t afraid to walk back even while carrying food. They also weren’t afraid to walk to and from Mongolian Grill from King’s, and quite enjoyed talking the longer route along the river on our way to dinner that night. Part of those choices were so we didn’t have to find bus fare/tickets for everybody or so that we didn’t have to wait for the bus, but it was primarily because walking that distance was quite normal for them. I’ve certainly walked those routes myself before, but ever since they came, with the exception of when the weather is bad I find myself automatically walking (or biking) those routes instead of taking a short bus ride.
But it was when I was in Malmo that things really changed. We were a bit skeptical when they said we wouldn’t need to take the bus that week. But we soon realized that walking (or biking, which we did a bit of) really was the best way to get around there, and it being free sure didn’t hurt either!
Staying in the city centre certainly made it easier to walk everywhere, and fortunately the school was only a 20 minute walk away. But it wasn’t just the distance that made us rely on our own two feet to get around, it was that it was so enjoyable! Gorgeous European architecture aside, they take placemaking seriously there, the streets weren’t filled with cars and thus felt immensely safer, and those things combined made walking an enjoyable experience, as opposed to the stressful and downright dangerous scenario that is often reality in North American cities. Pedestrians truly have the right of way there, which is facilitated by not only a different attitude towards those on foot and bike, but by more pedestrian and bike friendly street design that still allows for efficient travel for cars. (If you want to learn more about my experiences biking in Malmo, check out this old post.)
What else made it so nice? What about the market that appeared in a park one afternoon on our walk back from class? Or the food stands around the river? The way finding signs? The sidewalks and paths wide enough for bikes and pedestrians, with signs and/or lines dictating how they should be shared? The many streets and public squares that were closed to cars? Or how about the many patios for restaurants and cafes? I couldn’t pinpoint one thing, but all of these different elements came together to make it not only unnecessary to step foot inside a car or bus while there, but so pleasant to be on foot that I didn’t even want to.
Coming back to Canada was a bit of a shock, but I continue to walk more than I ever have. It’s free, it’s more efficient than most realize, it’s wonderful to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine (even when masked a bit by car fumes and smog), it’s quiet time for myself built into my day (sometimes the only chance I get for that) and if I keep it up then maybe others will join me and we’ll continue to tip the scales more towards the roads being a truly shared space instead of a place for cars with the edge bits grudgingly given to pedestrians.
So the moral of the story? We need to reimagine and redesign our streets so that there is a space for everyone-pedestrians, bikes, public transit, and yes, cars too. We can’t force people out of their cars if it’s not a safe or nice environment for them. We need to bring life back to the streets and to the public by eating our meals there, by sharing artwork and music in our streets and parks, by creating pedestrian only areas, by making public squares where people can gather, and by making our streets a not only safe but enjoyable place to move and to be.