Rajesh Kumar

Optimizing life, one day after the next

On Walking to School and Work

16 Apr 2012

Back when I used to live in Dubai ten years ago, I couldn't really walk outside too much during the day because it was so hot. The maximum I could walk was perhaps 5-10 minutes. I once missed my bus to school back in Grade 9, and decided, quite stupidly, to walk in the open mid-day desert sun for about forty-five minutes, since skipping school was not an option. That afternoon I decided that missing my school bus wasn't a luxury I could afford ever again.

It wasn't until we moved to Canada in Grade 10 that walking to school turned into a more viable option. We lived in this little suburb south of Vancouver known as North Delta. I bussed it to school the first couple of days, but then decided walking was significantly more fun, especially given the wonderful west-coast fall weather. I had all the time in the world, and walking allowed me to take in the beauty of the great Canadian suburban scenery.

A year later, in 2004, I switched schools. This gave me a fresh opportunity to walk up a steep hill every morning for two years, from the bottom of the Fraser valley in New Westminster all the way up to the top. There was bus #123 that took us up, but given the steepness of the hill, it was just as fast walking, and certainly more enjoyable since New Westminster was, and still is, such a dynamic and bustling town to walk through. Walking back downhill was even more fun thanks to the gorgeous view of the valley, the blue Fraser river, the arch-shaped Pattullo bridge, and to top it off, the setting sun. It was the perfect reward after a hard day's work at school.

When I took up my first job ever in the summer of 2005 after graduating high school, I realized what a joy it was to walk across the Granville bridge which connected mainland Vancouver with peninsular Vancouver, otherwise known as downtown. The scenic view of Granville island just beneath, and the impressive array of urban glass condominiums and apartment buildings as I walked into downtown everyday to catch my sky train back home was certainly a sight to behold and soak in after hours upon hours of painful programming.

During my first work term in downtown Toronto in the summer of 2006, I realized how immensely I enjoyed my walk back home from work. What started as an outlet to kill time semi-productively turned into a religious ritual. I decided to take walking to the next level. The sultry weather was just perfect for walking in a light t-shirt, and the hour-long walk through random streets, alleyways, and districts of Toronto allowed me to gather my thoughts and put together a solid plan for my life over the next couple of years, parts of which I still continue to execute even today. In those 4-months alone, I covered a whopping thousand kilometers by foot. I had just discovered a serious hobby. One that I simply couldn't enjoy back when I lived in the midst of the intense Middle Eastern heat. Walking had become a new way to cleanse my mind, my thoughts, and eventually, my life. I could never go back.

When I interned at Safe Software in Surrey, BC, I'd take the bus to work in the mornings, but would always walk back home in the evening. This was in the Winter of 2007. Vancouver was plush with fresh snow on the ground. It couldn't have been a more beautiful walk. And it wasn't that cold either. Maybe a degree or two at most. Perfect for a brisk-paced speed-walk back home after breaking my head over distasteful, buggy C++ code for 8 or more hours.

My next big break happened when I moved to San Francisco for the first time in the Winter of 2009. Here I re-discovered how fun walking to work and back could be. Hiking up the sequence of five consecutive hills every morning on Taylor St.—which I aptly dubbed the 'Taylor Sequence'—on my way to work took me in excess of five minutes the first time I scaled it. The last time I scaled it, just 8 months later, I was only a few seconds shy of 2 minutes. The benefit of taking the hilly route riddled with insane elevation was that I was always awarded with a very scenic view upon reaching the top. The more hills I climbed and the steeper the elevation, the better the view. That was motivation enough.

As I walked to work through Broadway St., past the hills, I would encounter a new smell everyday as I passed through SF's famed chinatown district. One day it would smell like roses, the other day like sewage. The next day it would be chicken feet, or something equally bizarre.

Ten months later, I arrived back at San Francisco, fresh after having covered at least five hundred kilometers all over western Europe by foot. Only this time, I would excitedly walk through the crowded streets of the Mission instead of North Beach, on my way to scale Portrero Hill. Unlike Chinatown, Mission always smelled the same everyday—of burritos and quesadillas—which was a bit of a disappointment. However, the view and scenery of Mission at the very top of Portrero hill made up for it. Occasionally, if I was feeling bold, I'd take the hidden curvy trail on Kansas St. that was full of several steep steps, but nothing like the 800 steep steps that led to Coit Tower on the other side of SF. I walked to work everyday for a couple of weeks until I decided to get a bicycle. That put an end to my walking adventures in San Francisco.

I thought my walking career was over until I moved back to Toronto in February 2012, nearly 10 years after I started my first walking journey back in North Delta. Living half-an-hour away from work by foot, it was the perfect way to kick start my day. The various sights of people hustling to work, the long lines at Tim Hortons every other block, the people in suits relishing their smoke for the morning, the concealed entrances to the underground PATH system which only become apparent after you see people curiously disappear into them, the tall skyscrapers looming into the sky above you, the plazas and the food-courts, and the channeled wind brushing against your already aroused nose — all make for a very dynamic and stimulating walk to work everyday. So stimulating, sometimes it even wants you to get back home and pen down a 1700-word blog post on the pleasures of walking to work every.

I know a lot of people hate walking. It's slow, yes, but if you put on some good music and allow yourself to get distracted by the numerous things happening around you, it won't seem as boring. For some people, anything more than 10 minutes of walking is considered beyond bounds, even in good weather. But there are so many beautiful places in this world that are accessible only by foot. I feel that by welcoming the idea of walking, I have been able to explore and appreciate the finer details of each city I've lived in. The scenery around you moves a lot slower than if you were to bike, drive or take public transit. This decrease in speed lets you soak in more detail about your surroundings which makes you tend to appreciate the little differences not just in architecture, but also in people, whether they be short or tall, rich or poor, fast or slow.

Walking makes you feel more intimate with your city since you get to know the streets really well. Things will start to feel more intuitive and you'll always know where you are without having to look at street signs. Every little Subway, Tim Hortons, Shoppers, Starbucks, Pizza Pizza or laundromat becomes a landmark you associate with in your head. You tend to notice the presence and location of really small stores that you would normally just drive by unaware of their existence. Little stores like cupcake shops, indie coffee shops, pen stores, key repairs, and locksmiths.

And not to mention the health benefits of walking everyday. In addition to being incredible exercise if your walk is brisk and long enough, walking an hour a day lets me sleep better at night. These days it takes me only about 30 seconds between closing my eyes and actually falling asleep. Furthermore, walking an hour a day is my own dedicated time to focus and listen to high-quality music without distractions. This is quite a bit different than just listening to music while working, driving, studying, or doing the dishes. Walking also allows me to get away from a screen, something that I look at for almost every single waking moment whether it be my 24" LCD monitor at work, my glossy macbook laptop screen at home, my iPhone while I'm texting, or my iPad when I'm reading a book or playing puzzle games.

So there, ladies and gentlemen, as a big advocate of walking, I invite you to join me in embracing the joy of walking in your city everyday. The easiest way to incorporate walking is to just walk to school or work, or wherever your engagements may happen to be. If possible, try not to live too close to work, but not too far away either.

Instead of taking the excruciatingly boring underground subway for just 2-3 stops, try walking instead — you won't regret it, weather permitting. By avoiding driving, you'd save a fortune on a car and the associated gas, insurance and parking expenses. And to top it off, you'd also be a lot more environmentally friendly by not pumping hydrocarbons and carbon dioxide into the air by driving everyday or taking public transit which is super crowded and unpredictable these days anyways. For the curious, there is no "rush hour traffic" while walking. The bottleneck is always your walking speed, not other people getting in your way. And of course, the faster you walk, the more calories you burn.

In the event you can't walk to work or school everyday, I encourage you to seek out, join, and participate in a "walking club" in your community. There's tons of these in every metropolitan city, and it allows you to walk along with other people, get to know your neighbors, make some friends while doing it, and stay healthy as you're having fun. Worst case, take an hour off in the middle of the day during work to go for a long, relaxing walk. I can't see any employer being opposed to that idea.

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