"Everywhere is walking distance if you have the time."
– Steven Wright, comedian
I'm not quite sure when walking became my primary mode of transportation. There was no epiphany – there was nothing special to mark the day.
It may have been the Nike FuelBand that I clamped to my wrist as a way of trying to take off a few pounds. A device to count the imprecise and apparently arbitrary units of "NikeFuel" that I burned in a day and provide me with the subsequent thrill of seeing the results graphed on my phone. (I have a new app that keeps track of actual distance, which is even more thrilling.)
But now, maybe two years later and with no recollection of any conscious decision-making process, walking is how I get everywhere – when I have the time.
I'm fortunate, in that I live in the middle of the city. My morning walk to work downtown is 50 minutes on a good day; an hour if I dawdle, or pause to Instagram or tweet something I've seen along the way.
I'm also fortunate because I have options: a car, a bicycle, a motorbike, nearby transit and the two car-sharing services to which I subscribe. But the days that I get to walk to and from work are the best days. Is it occasionally wet? Yes it is. But a sturdy umbrella does the job, and I've learned not to mind getting to work with slightly damp legs.
Walking is free, it feels good, it helps me think and it lets me see the city in a way that just isn't possible otherwise. Sticking to the same route brings the comfort of the familiar, and changing up the route brings new discoveries. Never before have I been so conscious of the seasons.
There are familiar characters along the way, like the man I have named Strongman – a triangular, broad-chested older man with a thick neck, a shiny bald head and a grey handlebar moustache. He is perpetually wearing shorts, and marches every morning in the opposite direction with the sort of purpose reserved for soldiers who know that victory is near. I may spot him anywhere between the viaduct and Commercial Drive, depending on my timing. He covers a lot of ground quickly.
There is Beanie Man outside of Uprising Breads, so named for his colourful knitted skullcap. He says hello every time I pass.
There are the dog walkers of Strathcona who often say good morning as they stoop and scoop. There are the sleepy-eyed children of the Raymur Project who appear far too young to be walking on their own, let alone shepherding their even younger siblings along beside them. There are the weary mothers in pyjama pants. And there are the tai chi ladies of MacLean Park, moving gently in unison to the music provided by an ancient ghetto-blaster propped atop a concrete picnic table.
I see renovations in progress, freshly affixed Sold! stickers on real estate signs, and front-porch dramas of all kinds. I see belongings strewn from torn suitcases in damp clumps. I see the sidewalk diamonds of car windows smashed overnight and freshly scrawled graffiti nearly every day.
On the way home – especially at this time of the year, when it's dark – through the windows I can see families settling down to dinner, or for the evening in the glow of giant TV screens. I steal glances into hundreds of lives, not to mention television-viewing habits.
After doing it for a couple of years, walking is now just how I get around. To get to and from work, to run weekend errands – to get pretty much anywhere I need to go that's within a reasonable distance and doesn't require the lugging of heavy objects.
Yes, I still need to drive or ride transit to move little people around – but paying for parking or tapping in feels like a minor defeat.
Science tells me this: When I walk my heart beats faster, pumping more blood to vital organs including my brain. There's a reason so many writers step away from the keyboard for a walk when they're stuck on something.
The physical benefits are well documented: Walking staves off chronic disease, improves bone and joint health and muscle tone and, yes, do enough of it and you can shed a few pounds.
There is all of that. But there is also the simple joy of putting one foot in front of the other and taking in everything that's around you at a human pace.
Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One, 88.1 FM and 690 AM in Vancouver.