In Toronto, walking is the new driving

Walking never got any respect: it was slow, unsexy and boring. Only losers walked.

But today, walking is what the cool kids do, whether they’re staving off Alzheimers and depression, losing weight or gaining creativity.

In fact, over 4.5 million people have watched Toronto doctor Mike Evans’ online video: 23 ½ Hours: “What’s the single best thing we can do for our health?

His answer, which is being embraced by doctors everywhere, is simple: “Walk for half an hour every day.”

But I have a new use for walking.

I discovered it four years ago when I was recovering from open-heart surgery and had to get out of bed and walk a little bit farther every day as part of my cardio rehab. After I recovered, I just kept on walking — the four kilometres to and from work, the one kilometre from my office to a meeting in downtown Toronto, the 30 steps up the stairs at the Queen’s Park subway.

Along the way, I’ve come to enjoy all the expected benefits of absorbing a city from ground level at a pace that will let me take it all in: the furtive smokers outside office buildings (and hospitals!), even in February’s brutal cold; the armed guards watching aggressively as they re-stock a bank machine; the sharp contrast between the people who wait in line at Tim Hortons and those in line at Starbucks.

But I’ve also become expert on the floor-by-floor progress of the scores of new condos and office buildings that are driving Toronto’s relentless densification. More than once I ‘ve turned a corner to see a 30-storey condo that I swear didn’t exist when I passed by a month ago.

Oddly, it’s Toronto’s construction boom that’s given me another reason to make walking my preferred method of transport: The plain fact is, walking is often faster than driving or taking the bus or subway.

Yes, faster.

Not always, but often enough to make it worthwhile thinking about the next time it takes you 30 minutes to drive one kilometre not in rush hour, or your 15-minute subway ride becomes an angry hour-long bus ride.

There have been times I’ve walked the two kilometres from my office to a meeting, only to learn I left after my colleague who took the subway or drove. They either “hit traffic” or “there was a delay on the subway.”

If you think both of these plagues are happening more and more, you’re not getting nostalgic for a past that never existed, because they are: Toronto now has the worst traffic of any North American city, except New York; and the delays on the TTC subways this past winter are longer and more frequent many of us can recall. With the TTC already serving many more people than was planned, and what that number growing like compound interest, the delays and crowding have no choice: they can only get worse.

In fact, saying “The traffic was hell” or “The subway’s delayed” is now as bulletproof an excuse for being late in Toronto as “I had to take my dad to the Emerg,” or “Our daycare flooded today.”

Everybody understands.

But is walking really a private transit option, vying with cars and bicycles as a credible way to transport yourself on a regular basis?

Let’s review the benefits: it costs absolutely nothing. It lifts your mood. It gives you time to listen to your iPhone, or unplug entirely. It gets you fit and burns calories — all without having to ‘exercise.’ It lets you change routes on a whim.

And if you leave just a few minutes earlier than you’d planned, it will get you to the church on time — all the time.

Pretty soon, you won’t just be walking to and from work (or if you live a huge distance from work, from the subway, bus stop or GO Train station where you choose to debark a deliberately chosen couple of kilometres from work). You’ll be walking for 20-minutes here, 30-minutes there during your day.

That’s what happened with me. I didn’t set out to do it. One day I just thought: “Why don’t I walk from College and University down to King and University rather than taking the subway? So I did. Then after my meeting, I took the subway back. The subway ride took me 10 minutes; the walk, 22 minutes. That 12-minute difference was ….well, a tiny proportion of the 1,440 minutes each day brings us.

I soon blew through my goal of walking 10,000 steps a day and set a new goal of 15,000 a day, which I often reach without thinking twice about it.

Now that spring is arriving in Toronto, and with it a Mad Max of road closures, the traffic will be even worse. In fact, one reason the express airport bus from the Royal York Hotel was discontinued last fall was that all the downtown road constructionmade it impossible to know when you’d ever arrive for your flight at Pearson.

But the best part of all about walking isn’t smiling as I stride past a car stuck in traffic that I saw 10 blocks before — although that’s tempting.

The best part is not sitting, which, when you think about it, is something you not only do all day in the office, but in the car, on the train, hopefully on the bus or subway and even on your bike.

The jury’s out whether sitting is the new smoking.

What I do know is that walking is the new driving.


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