For over a year now walking has been my primary commute mode from my house on Grizzly Peak to my job (via BART) in downtown San Francisco. This has been made possible by the Berkeley Path Wanderers Association’s work to build paths on the rights of way created long ago when the Berkeley Hills were originally mapped and subdivided. (See BPWA’s website at www.berkeleypaths.org for more on this excellent organization and the history of the paths of Berkeley.)
It takes me exactly half an hour to get from my front door to the downtown Berkeley BART station. Coming home is uphill and takes about seven minutes longer. Compared to the alternative of driving to North Berkeley BART (which I did for many years), I figure walking takes an extra 27 minutes a day.
I have long meditated on the meaning of those 27 minutes. In our speed-crazed world, a previous me would have thought those minutes wasted in the race to get work and “be productive.” The actuality is that those 27 minutes spent disengaged from tools and in the presence of nature are extremely effective for my work. Many has been the time when an insight came unsolicited while walking, solving a problem or puzzle that has been challenging me. Where these thoughts come from, I don’t know, but I am happy to be the beneficiary of them.
The 27 minutes “saved” by driving are also rather illusory. For one, you have to calculate the cost of driving to fairly estimate the costs vs. benefit of walking. This is a complex task. Most of us don’t add up all the costs of owning, maintaining, operating and insuring a vehicle, paying license fees, parking (now a buck a day at BART) and occasional traffic tickets (they’re just gonna happen). We would probably cry if we did! So to drive instead of walk surely adds up to several hundreds of dollars a year or more. And in order to earn this money, I then have to spend more time working, offsetting the 27 minutes “saved” by driving.
On top of the more obvious costs of automobiles, there are also the hidden costs. I understand that driving a car a mile adds about pound of carbon to the atmosphere. We don’t know yet how to price a pound of carbon in this country. Yet surely in the coming years including carbon costs—indeed, learning to measure all the costs of all our actions—will need to become part of our everyday thinking.
The 27 extra minutes spent walking compared to driving also give me very valuable exercise and health benefits. Were I to drive, I would need to go to the gym, or go for a run, or do some other kind of physical activity during my day to avoid becoming sedentary. Viewed from this angle, walking is an extraordinarily efficient way to get healthful, low-impact exercise. The walk back uphill in the evening is pleasantly strenuous and I break into a pretty good sweat on all but the coldest days.
Simply getting more people to walk instead of drive would do wonders for the obesity epidemic in this country and go a long way toward solving the problem of our spiraling health care costs. An ounce of prevention is surely worth a pound of cure when it comes to exercise and health!
Just as important as the health and ecological benefits are the mental and emotional ones. Walking is a form of meditation and healing. My route is a very pretty one, especially in the wooded hills and walking across the UC campus alongside Strawberry Creek. I find walking calms my thoughts, lowers my stress level, and puts me into a mood of “positive affect” that permeates my day at work and my evening at home with my family. For people who have a hard time practicing formal sitting meditation, walking is almost as good (as long as you leave your i-Pod at home!).
Walking also connects me to the seasons, and having walked for over a full year, I have found walking to be a joy in every kind of weather. Thanks to lightweight rain gear from Marmot and my Ecco Gore-Tex hiking shoes, I am practically indifferent to inclement weather (in fact, I find walking in the rain is very cool). And were it not for walking, I doubt I would be as aware of the camellias blooming and the first acacia buds starting to open, or the first songbirds of the year announcing in the dawn of morning that light is returning.
Walking gives me hope— and it is in the spirit of hope that I offer these reflections, that they may benefit others as I have benefitted from walking the paths of Berkeley.