Daniel Orenstein
Daniel Orenstein

Walking towards a new and radical post-pandemic normal

Walking during a pandemic (Courtesy: GoToVan, Flickr)

This year everything slowed down. Shutdowns, social distancing, quarantines, work-from-home, and cessation of international travel narrowed our day-to-day range of movement from regional to international scales down to the neighborhood scale. During the most stringent of restrictions, we were confined to an area of less than a kilometer from our homes, and even when restrictions were eased, most of our year was spent much closer to home than in previous years. No doubt this caused a great deal of anxiety, stress, and isolation.

So, as Israel emerges from pandemic restrictions on movement, why do I also have regret about “getting back to normal”? Maybe because these restrictions introduced an entirely different set of living conditions that, were it not for the context of COVID-19, inadvertently revealed something wholly positive. I, like many, found renewed comfort in urban nature in my backyard and alleys, met neighbors previously unknown, got prodigious amounts of exercise, and discovered a local environment free, for the first time, of air and noise pollution. Like the lurch of a car when you jam on the breaks, with a screeching halt, our lives slowed down from 100 km/hour to 5 km/hour. We stopped driving and started walking. It was at first frightening, later taxing, but eventually – in part – pleasant.

I have always been an advocate of walking (and public transportation), but weaning off the car is difficult because so much of our lives and geography have evolved to create dependency on them. In my current city, Haifa, or my birth city, Los Angeles, to live car-less one must carefully structure and adapt every aspect of life (where to live, where to work, how to shop, how to manage a family) to being carless. It’s not impossible, but it is also not easy (full disclosure, our family of five has one car, down from the two we had three years ago). In the vicious transportation-spatial planning cycle, the more we use cars, the more we need to design space to facilitate cars, which further entrenches our dependency on cars and so on. More cars mean more asphalt, more parking lots, more noise, more accidents, and more air pollution, from nitrogen oxides to greenhouse gas emissions.

More cars, more demand for infrastructure, more dependency on cars, and so on (Courtesy: Wikipedia Commons)

COVID-19 briefly and suddenly broke the vicious cycle, and even pushed the cycle in reverse for a brief moment. Our cars sat idle. Our homes felt smaller. We stepped outside and took back the roads. We met neighbors, old and new. And our dogs were the unwitting beneficiaries of their owners’ cabin fever. A romantic quiet settled on neighborhoods and bird song dominated the air waves. Life slowed down. Incidentally, planners and architects rediscovered the fading importance of neighborhood parks and green private yards, roofs, and balconies. By walking our neighborhoods in a way that had previously been reserved only for Yom Kippur, when all of Israel goes carless, we got a brief glimpse into a quality of life that has mostly been forgotten.

Imagine ridding ourselves of the pre-pandemic “normal” that is associated to traffic jams, noisy engines, air pollution, climate change, accidents, and ever-increasing amounts of pavement replacing trees, fields, and yards. I am transforming from a recreational walker to a radical walker, from a walking advocate to a walking apostle (sans the theist implications).

There are at least four good justifications for walking: (1) as exercise for mind and body; (2) for developing sense of community; (3) as act of environmental conviction; and (4) as act of social rebellion. The first is a real no-brainer; uncontroversial and empirically grounded. Even a superficial dive into the academic literature yields a consensus opinion that walking is good for your physical and psychological health. Combined with assumptions that increased walking decreases the amount of motorized travel, the health impact is magnified by reduction in air and noise pollution.

The second – community development – is less intuitive, though we all got a taste of this during the pandemic. Increased social interaction through impromptu encounters while walking the neighborhood allowed us to meet and talk with our neighbors. I gained an intimate knowledge, for example, of the neighborhood dogs and their owners, and had the opportunity for numerous conversations about wild boars and their impact on the neighborhood (we all have our intellectual obsessions).

Thirdly, walking, unlike every form of motorized transportation, is virtually zero-environmental impact. The environmental impact of SOVs in urban areas is profound, contributing to a majority of the ground-level air pollution in urban areas, a significant portion of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses, and the pervasive noise in the urban environment. All of these increase health risk, including cardiovascular disease and stress-related disorders. One recent global study estimates 800,000 excess deaths a year in Europe due to air pollution-related health risks, and 8.8 million excess deaths globally.  Indirectly, our SOV-centric infrastructure is resulting in secondary environmental problems such as loss of urban nature and biodiversity, increased flood risk, urban heat islands and more. Walking in lieu of driving alleviates each one of these threats.

Realizing these benefits, many cities around the world have taken advantage of the pandemic shock to re-assess how cities are designed, and how they can be made more favorable to pedestrians and to public health. Oakland, California is experimenting with a “slow streets” initiative, which closes off local streets to motor traffic and leaves them for exclusive use of bikers and walkers. Other cities, from Berlin to Vancouver to Bogota are widening bike lanes, limiting motor vehicle access, and improving pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Barcelona is promoting a grandiose experiment to make its city center “superblocks” entirely car-free. While these measures are currently being assessed as to whether they are meeting their objectives, they reflect the promise of, and commitment to, breaking the car-dependency cycle and giving pedestrians (and public transportation) a well-deserved advantage.

But the most radical (and for me, the most rewarding) reason of all to walk is that by choosing walking over driving, we are resisting entrenched and destructive social norms by breaking the vicious cycle of auto-dependency. Breaking such rigid frameworks demands radical commitment to do what often feels difficult, even when it brings so many potential advantages. Such a commitment is not unlike many of the necessary steps we will have to take to confront the global environmental challenges caused by our locked-in behaviors, including our [over] consumption habits, meat-heavy diets, and energy-intensive transportation norms. It’s not easy, its often inconvenient, but for every trip in which walking/cycling/public transportation replace SOVs, the cycle will push backwards.

We should reconsider the mantra of “returning to normal” following the pandemic by considering whether “normal” is synonymous with “desirable”. Many of our “normal” habits exacerbated our susceptibility to global pandemics and are also driving the degradation of the global environment. Climate change, biodiversity loss, nutrient accumulation in the environment and other environmental threats to human wellbeing and survival were all created and driven by “normal” human behavior. Beyond the health and economic threat, the pandemic gave us a glimpse into possible ways to improve our collective health and resilience to future shocks. Walking is certainly one way to get to the new and better normal.

About the Author
Daniel Orenstein is an associate professor in the Faculty of Architecture and Town Planning at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. His research interests include human-nature interactions, environmental issues in Israel and globally, and public engagement in environmental policy. His general interests are much broader.
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