I live in a privileged St. Paul neighborhood with professional cyclists — men and women of varying ages who commute by bicycle all year round, including during the recent polar vortex.
Their financial investment, beyond the cost of the bicycles themselves, includes heavy gloves, facemasks, hard-bottomed boots, helmets and goggles, lights and reflectors, and reflective jackets or vests.
Pedestrians like me can learn two lessons from these pragmatic, all-weather bikers:
- Safety — being visible — is their top priority. They accept the reality that they would lose any duel with a motor-powered vehicle. It simply isn’t a fair fight.
- Rather than rail about winter weather, they dress for wind, precipitation and frigid temperatures. That allows them to relish the outdoors.
People who walk are not always so practical. I average 14,000 steps a day — more than six miles — commuting to and from my job at the University of St. Thomas, walking to and from bus stops and meetings around campus, and walking my beloved dogs every morning without fail.
I see pedestrians out on the streets and sidewalks who are under-dressed and ill equipped to brave the elements (yes, the dogs and I walked on January 30, when the air temperature, not counting wind chill, was minus 28 degrees). Winter walking gear may sound expensive — long coat engineered for below-zero wind chills, face mask and hat, various gloves and mittens, walking boots and moisture-wicking socks, Yaktrax and a reflective vest — though it is far cheaper than the cost of car maintenance, when you consider oil changes, tire rotation, insurance premiums and license plate renewal.
I know this firsthand, having recently given my aging Prius to my older son.
Being cold outside is miserable. Walking, therefore, becomes a chore, a death march to endure, rather than a low-injury but exhilarating form of transportation that requires patience, yes, but also inspires a sense of place, a feeling of being part of one’s community.
Cases in point:
- I complimented a young woman’s retro pom-pom hat at my yoga studio the other day. “Yeah,” she said, touching it proudly, “having a hat finally lets me walk outside.” It would have been condescending to say “Duh,” and I see enough college-age women this time of year in flats with bare ankles, but still. How old do you have to be before flattened hair matters less than freezing?
- The Saint Paul Pioneer Press is following six people throughout 2019 as they strive to realize their New Year’s resolutions. Two women, predictably, want to lose weight — but neither is willing to walk outdoors during the winter. Both have treadmills at home, but can they really keep off weight for a lifetime — or change their auto-dependent, suburban habits — if they refuse to exercise outside?
Support your health and safety
One of the core values of streets.mn is to “inspire happiness and wonder in all seasons and all times of the night and day.” Given our crowded roadways and widening girths, Minnesotans appear to have lost sight of the wonder of walking, especially during the winter and at night.
In our desire to fix an environment that is warming at an alarming speed, and to counter the shortsightedness and self-indulgence of contemporary car culture, we multi-modal advocates overlook a key benefit of getting around without a car: Walking is exercise, a pleasure in and of itself. Walking improves our minds and bodies.
No surprise that a recent obituary in the Star Tribune described the miles-long walks and “consistent exercise” of a woman who died on the cusp of 99.
But any benefit of walking is erased if pedestrians feel uncertain and unsafe. A recent thread in my Nextdoor.com feed dubbed “winter walking” — launched shortly after a rash of pedestrian deaths in St. Paul in early January — was unsettling for the vitriol between drivers and pedestrians.
The key question: Who is responsible for pedestrian safety?
- “Wearing headphones and reading your phone while you walk across a busy street is just not smart,” said Dan from Macalester-Groveland. (I hear this complaint a lot about our college students.)
- “Please be aware that you are harder to see when a driver has the lights of another vehicle in their eyes,” said Brian from Lexington-Hamline.
- “First and foremost, we need to slow our streets down,” said Mike from Mac-Groveland. “It is on the driver, operating the deadly machine, to be responsible and in control. I now drive like there are pedestrians at every corner waiting to cross.”
- “I know we’re all busy,” said the Mac-Groveland resident who began this online conversation, “and it’s easy to be preoccupied with where you’re going, but hitting a pedestrian would change our lives forever.” (Not to mention the pedestrian’s!)
- “There are not enough stop signs or stoplights to make it safe for pedestrians,” said Marie of Summit-University. “We need a less car-centric world.”
Prepare for winter walking by investing in the clothing and equipment that will keep you visible and warm. Review your neighborhood: Where are the painted crosswalks (a debatable safety measure, but I find them to be of help), curb cuts, medians and controlled intersections?
If you live in St. Paul and care about walking, review the city’s draft of its Pedestrian Plan. Public comment is due by Friday, February 8, and a public hearing is scheduled that morning at City Hall.
See you outside!