Why we’re not a walking city anymore

Martha Muzychka
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I’m one of those people who grew up on stories of their parents walking to school uphill through the miles in all kind of weather.

It wasn’t just stories for me and my friends, though; we all walked a fair distance, perhaps not miles, but in my case, across two streets, over two back garden trails and three parks.

If we timed it right, we picked up several of our friends, so many sometimes that drivers would have to steer clear of a whole pack of children, our school bags slung over one shoulder with our neon bright lunchboxes clutched in our hands.

It wasn’t just during the school year when we’d walk. We often go in those same packs to the library, or to the corner store for our almost daily Popsicle, or to the park, spring and summer, weekdays and weekends.

When we were old enough, we’d switch from walking to bike riding and we’d be a convoy instead of a pack.

In the late 1990s, when I moved into the east end, I assumed my child would have the same experience, but it wasn’t to be, at least for the school part, not until he was in sixth grade and almost as tall as I am today.

What was the difference? The primary one is the traffic. Even though there’s a modest little intersection near the side street that leads to our neighbourhood, I’m convinced people think the main road is another parkway based on the trucks and cars that zip through the lights. It seems somewhere there is a hidden sign that says “ignore the lights here, go on through.”

We had traffic, too, growing up, but it wasn’t as fast, and there was greater awareness, like we have now about moose, that children and adults walking were also part of the environmental equation in the city.

Perhaps it was because we went in packs, instead of ones and twos, or maybe it was because we had parents for whom a drive to school was reserved for torrential downpours or howling snowstorms.

The truth is for small children, walking to school in our zone, where there are five neighbourhood schools all in walking distance of heavily residential areas, is too risky. So far, we’ve personally witnessed at least one school bus, one city bus, and innumerable trucks whiz through the lights when they have not had the right of way.

It doesn’t matter if it’s winter or summer, but I have to say it is scarier in the winter because there’s nothing like a two-tonne truck hoping to shred ice and beat the light to raise your blood pressure.

You’d never know it, but the yellow light is there for a reason, and I have lost count how many times vehicles of all shapes, sizes and state of repair barrel on through, not even a stale yellow, but a bright, blazing red.

I wrote recently about the lack of snowclearing with walkers in mind, and that is certainly a continuing factor that inhibits most people from using their own feet to get one from one place to another.

It has always given me pause when I think that a private, family run foundation is the brains and money behind the walking trails in our city, and not the municipal government itself.

It’s why I welcomed the recent news that the City of St. John’s has embarked on a plan that sees walking as a feature in our community. It has been a long time coming.

What I hope it will tackle next is the foolishness we see behind the empty buildings formerly housing grocery stores on Newfoundland Drive and Churchill Square. Both of those spots were neighbourhood hubs, too.

We have a whole generation of kids who know very little about the joys of walking to school or experiencing a place where people connect with each other via their feet.

It’s time we changed that, for all seasons and for all the best reasons.

Martha Muzychka is a writer and consultant living in St. John’s. E-mail:socialnotes@gmail.com.

Geographic location: Newfoundland Drive, Churchill Square

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