Getting It: The Suburbanite’s Plight

by Rachel on May 5, 2010

One of the main ways to live like a French woman is to move more. Mireille — we’re now on a first-name basis; she is my ami — suggests you walk or bike to do your daily activities instead of driving or taking the bus or train. OK…perfect. But the problem I’ve always had with this is the fact that I live in the ‘burbs. And the ‘burbs is full of people who are addicted to driving like Heidi’s addicted to destroying her face.

To be fair, it’s not their (our) fault. Many cities, even small ones, have neighborhoods that are all connected by sidewalks. Not so in GB. Once you leave the downtown area, you have subdivisions without sidewalks (where people do just walk/bike/run in the street because there’s such little traffic). Between the subdivisions, on the main roads, there are no sidewalks, just the gravel “shoulders.” Yes, you could walk there but it’s not good for your body. And really, the roads are just too busy for it to be considered anything but dangerous. So my problem has always been that even if I wanted to walk a half hour into “downtown” to do an errand, I can’t, because I’ll get hit by a car.

This is a problem throughout Michigan as far as I can tell. There are tons of subdivisions, main roads with houses and businesses and no sidewalks, then big major roads with things like Target, Costco, and Panera Bread. Those roads do have sidewalks, but I can’t say that I’ve ever seen anyone using them. Who notices the sidewalks at the edges of the massive parking lots?! And no one can get from their subdivisions to the sidewalks anyway. But this lack of sidewalks might explain why Michigan people are not exactly known for being slim or healthy. We have a real problem and I think that being bound to our cars is a big part of it.

But then on Saturday, a light bulb went off! (Getting It moment #3764364 of this week.) Just like I used to take the subway only halfway and then get out and walk the rest of the way — a great way to walk more in the city, by the way — I can just drive halfway and then get out and use the sidewalks. I live where the sidewalk ends…so I just need to go to where the sidewalk begins! Then I can do my errands on foot!

I gave this a try on Sunday. I drove five minutes into town and parked my car near the beginning of the sidewalk. Then I got out and started hoofing it. I quickly realized many things.

  • No one ever really uses these sidewalks. I passed two other people the entire time, and both were on bikes. What a waste, people!
  • People give you a lot of strange looks when they see you actually using the sidewalks. At times I felt like a total freak, but I just kept telling myself I was too busy being a healthy French woman to worry about what these people thought of me.
  • Clearly no one ever uses the sidewalks — I had to be super careful about traffic, especially cars making right-hand turns. And when I was stopped at cross-walks, drivers didn’t know what to do.
  • The traffic light never changed to the “Walk” sign…because no one ever walks!
  • I discovered so many things about my city when I was on foot! When you breeze through town every day for nearly two decades, it’s amazing what you miss. But I saw businesses I’d never noticed. I saw a whole church I had never really noticed. And lots of pretty trees with pink flowers I hadn’t seen before!

I made it from Point A to Point B in about 25 minutes, which wasn’t too bad. Then I headed back to Point A, where I had more errands to do. (And where I wanted to finish because I would be buying heavier items and didn’t want to lug them across town.)

Now, did walking my errands save time? Well, yes and no. Of course it would have been faster to drive from Point A to Point B…about 48 minutes faster.

However, I did not, when all was said and done, have to drive to Point C — the local walking trails. I mean, it’s awesome that we have these trails now where we can walk, but really, why make a special trip when we have sidewalks in town?! So I saved all that time, plus it was nice to walk somewhere with a purpose. My mom said, “You walked all that way?” But it’s really not that far! It’s no further than the walk across campus in college or the walk from my apartment in the East Village to shopping in Chelsea was and I did that without thinking twice.

I’m kind of annoyed that I didn’t think of this sooner and really want to encourage other people to do this. I mean, I know for a fact I’m not the only burb-dweller and I know how much burb-dwellers make excuses. I’m super excited that I’ve found a way to shoot that excuse to Hell.

So if you’re a Suburbanite or you know someone who is, please share this idea! Because we all love our cars, but this is a great compromise. Drive, then walk! Maybe it will catch on. Personally, I would just love to see masses of suburbanites going between Bed, Bath, and Beyond and Best Buy on foot rather than in noisy, traffic-clogging, polluting, gas-guzzling cars. Wouldn’t you?

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

1 midgetkeeper May 5, 2010 at 8:38 am

I completely agree! No one uses the sidewalks here either and like you I get strange looks when I do it but now I run the errands I can on foot, my kids love getting in the stroller and getting out of the house. I get things done and exercise, win, win!
.-= midgetkeeper´s last blog ..Birthday #2 In Pictures =-.

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2 Stephanie May 5, 2010 at 8:58 am

I always walk to work once my train gets into Boston (I live in the North Shore just outside of the city) but I never really thought to run errands on foot in my home town. I did get rid of my car a few months ago since I rarely drove it and my bf and I just share his car. But I live fairly close to quite a few shopping areas that I could easily walk to. I think I would find myself doing this more on weekends though, rather then weeknights when I get home from work. I might just have to give it a go this weekend!

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3 Bridget@PavementandPlants May 5, 2010 at 9:21 am

I love “active commuting” (that’s what it is called in my engineering textbooks). I bike to everything here and even wrote a post about how it’s a great way to unwind after work. I even took a class on health and the built environment-how your health is affected by the way your community is set up. If you want to see how your neighborhood ranks, check out http://www.walkscore.com/. You can calculate how walkable your neighborhood is. I am so passionate about this topic!

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4 MelissaNibbles May 5, 2010 at 10:03 am

I walk from my apartment to the commuter station and it’s exactly as you described, people have no idea what to do when they see walkers on the sidewalk. Didn’t they pay attention in driver’s ed?
I think another problem in America is the fact that the big stores you mentioned like Target are all in plazas that you have to drive on a highway to get to. It’s pretty much impossible to walk to them to run errands.

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5 jord May 5, 2010 at 12:59 pm

I giggled out loud while reading this. I too live in the burbs where sidewalks are random, and your chances of being backed over by an SUV while on them is frighteningly high. I’ve bitched about it before (mainly the SUV drives staring at me like they’ve forgotten that legs and feet are also a viable mode of transportation). I’m a city girl (and moving home this weekend!) and the lack of sidewalks drives me crazy.

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6 Kendra May 5, 2010 at 3:53 pm

Now this is why I’m in love with my city. I live in (just outside) Seattle but I spend the majority of my waking hours in downtown. We have such a comprehensive bus system that I can bus, train, or monorail almost everywhere. The rest I can walk or drive a wee little bit. The only problem that I have with the situation is that I also have such a pretty (cheap) convertible that on sunny days I have trouble getting myself to not drive.
.-= Kendra´s last blog ..Weight Loss Distractions – "Weight Loss Is Over Rated" =-.

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7 Christine May 5, 2010 at 3:57 pm

I live in suburbia as well but I guess it must be different here in California? we have sidewalk everywhere, bike trails/hiking paths, bicycle lanes all over, and a lot of walkers/runners/bikers…things are spread out quite a bit because it’s the suburbs but we definitely have the chance to walk or bike if we want to.

this post confused me so much because I was like… wait…no sidewalks? a definite wtf moment for me haha. I guess it’s similar to the first time I went to the midwest and saw people didn’t have fences. I had NO idea that people lived in neighbourhoods without fences! I guess I was/am a naive little Californian.

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8 Rachel May 5, 2010 at 3:58 pm

haha Christine I had no idea that there was a part of the world where everyone had a fence so I guess we’re even then!! But yeah, our suburbs are super spread out and there are no sidewalks for the most part. Lameeeeeeee.

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9 Heather May 6, 2010 at 12:28 am

OMG, this drove me crazy when I lived at home right after college in our mutual suburban town. I went from Ann Arbor, where I walked everywhere, to southeastern-Michigan golf town where everyone drove (their Escalades) everywhere. I HATED it. I also feared for my life every time I went running on the main strip by my subdivision where there was only a gravel shoulder. Now, living in Chicago, the only times I wish I had a car are when I do heavy duty grocery shopping.

Also, here’s something to think about… do you think we have fewer sidewalks in general in Michigan because so much of our economy was based in the auto-industry? Like developers didn’t add as many sidewalks because they wanted to promote driving? We really don’t have much of a public transit system, either — even in the big cities like Detroit. I hate to think it’s one big conspiracy, haha, but I mean, look at where we’re from!
.-= Heather´s last blog ..Why Your Trainer Hates When You Take Fitness Classes =-.

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10 Fattie Fatterton May 6, 2010 at 7:45 am

Ohio is the same way. We drive everywhere. Everything is so spread out, too. But I’ll be honest, I had never thought of this. I’ll have to give it a try. :D
.-= Fattie Fatterton´s last blog ..Sooooooooooooo tired =-.

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11 loreejo May 6, 2010 at 3:24 pm

i’d say this is “getting it”…and you’re so generous to “give it” back to us! being suburban myself, i get the strange looks when i walk a mile to the grocery store (thank heavens for sidewalks in my area!); the looks are like “poor lady, must not have a car” or like they are looking for my broken-down car along the street. so i even had to “swallow my pride” a little to start walking to buy groceries b/c i hated people thinking i couldn’t AFFORD a car! guess what? when i walk to the store, i don’t add on a bunch of extra purchases b/c i don’t want to carry them! i just wish they had a place to keep my doggy (like a bike rack?) so she could go along w/me!

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12 Bridget@PavementandPlants May 6, 2010 at 6:16 pm

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