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Pedestrian in Michigan

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pe – des – tri – an
1. a person who goes or travels on foot; walker.

Being a pedestrian in Southeastern Michigan is tough. The act of walking is so unusual that walkers are invisible. Just as you never see kids playing in yards, you rarely see anyone walking unless they’re doing it for health and exercise.

Perhaps it’s the auto industry that has made people unused to walking. With everyone and their uncle directly or indirectly related to a car company where employee discounts are deep, people take cars and driving for granted. If you live here, you have to drive here. Everything is spaced out so far, it’s a necessity.

In the Detroit area, mass transit is a joke (we call the SMART – Southeast Michigan Area Rapid Transit — bus the “dumb” bus), where buses seldom run on time if at all. It’s not San Francisco, New York or the Twin Cities where mass transit is reliable; it’s not even Colorado Springs, where one can still get from a southern suburb to downtown with ease. Still, people wait for the bus here when they could be hoofing it just as fast.

I grew up in Colorado in the early '70s and my friends and I walked everywhere. It was a necessity. I did the Volksmarches in Germany. When the kids were little, we took them out nightly in strollers. But once they became mobile, we relied more and more on our cars. Now walking, especially here, sometimes seems just plain weird.

I was just thinking of this as I walked to work a couple of times last week. Luckily for me, I live in a small urban town. I’m four or five blocks from downtown Royal Oak, and our office is another six blocks beyond that. When days are temperate and I have no pressing place to go, I’ll walk to work or to a downtown restaurant. It’s a mile and it takes me all of 20 minutes. I drive a hybrid so I feel I’m doing my part to curb my usage of fossil fuels, but the city has decided (in its infinite wisdom) to convert most of what used to be free parking into metered parking. To avoid the parking hassle, I’ll walk.

Walking, however, is not without its risks. Seldom do drivers obey the speed limit, and the sidewalk on 11 Mile Road is dangerously close to the street pavement. Car/pedestrian or car/bicycle accidents are not unheard of. My husband used to ride his bike, until one morning when he had the right of way and was almost flattened from behind.

This is not California, where pedestrians are militant about their right of way. That kind of attitude carries no weight with Midwestern drivers. Walkers must stroll defensively, even in crosswalks. I know I’m not enormous, but I do take up physical space and mass, and am amused by the fact that drivers don’t see me. It’s best to walk against the flow of traffic than to walk with it. If a car is going to jump a curb and take me out, I want to see my impending doom and run out of the way.

I can’t walk in winter, although I have tried. Unlike St. Paul, there are no rules or laws here stating that homeowners or businesses must keep the walks clear from snow and ice. About 25 years ago, I fell in an icy crosswalk and broke my leg and I’m not doing that again.

For those who have never tried the purposeful stroll, I would heartily recommend it. Drivers miss a lot by speeding to their destinations. Walkers, on the other hand, notice the smell of flowers and lawns. They see their neighbors and stop to chat. They notice stores, and they notice when the stores have sales. When a walker passes a restaurant, he or she can judge the menu first hand by the smell test.

The Saturday farmers’ market is on my way to work, and I can take a quick detour to find that the cherries are in season and the first sweet corn has arrived. Sundays are flea market days, with an entirely different feel in both vendors and clientele.

We moved to our house a few years ago, and when I started walking to work, I vowed to smile and say “hello” to everyone I passed. I had been bowled over by the friendliness of walkers in California. Even the homeless guy at the end of the N-Judah line gave me a “good morning” and he certainly didn’t have to.

Since friendly walkers are such an anomaly in Southeastern Michigan, my greetings are sometimes met with absent stares. More often than not, passersby are disarmed by the mere notion of acknowledgment and that’s sad. We live in a world of increasing isolation, where each of us are alone, trapped in our own bubbles. The internet and progress may make some things better and faster, but in the end it’s the human touch that gets lost in shuffle.

Perhaps walking is such a lost art, humans may eventually lose their legs, like the whales did a million years ago.


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About Joanne Huspek

I write. I read. I garden. I cook. I eat. And I love to talk about all of the above.