Tuesday, May 21

On walking – and Covid lockdowns

What’s happened to all the walkers? Once upon a time, there used to be lots of walkers of all ages and walking was a primary mode of urban and even suburban transportation. Then, so the argument goes, we all became both more dispersed and busier, (if not ‘bussier’) so there was neither the time nor the possibility of walking as a mode of transport. Coupled with this, our urban planning started to dramatically privilege the car even in the inner city, while in New Zealand public transport (except in Wellington) was viewed as the demonstration of socio-economic failure. In Christchurch, this resulted in buses being colloquially labelled ‘loser cruisers’. Of course, such designation coupled with the downgrading of public transport tends to become a self-fulling prophecy and so then we get both urban myths and underlying true experiences of racism, intimidation, violence and anti-social behavior on buses and in and around bus stops and bus terminals. Covid then exacerbated the situation because such shared transport space was perceived as shared potential infection space.

This occurs in a situation where many parts of, and access to, our inner cities are not set up to facilitate walking. If, as the great urbanist Jane Jacobs argued, ‘downtown is for people’, in New Zealand we have consistently and intentionally modified it to ‘downtown is for people in cars’. We also see the ever-increasing expansion of drive and free-park suburban malls across New Zealand, coupled with new housing suburban sprawl that is often primarily dormitory mass-housing where you are expected to get in your cars (the single car suburban house is an ever-increasing rarity) and drive to access or participate in whatever you wish or need to. We know ‘suburbia is for cars’ and there seems to be little that will or could change this in New Zealand. At the most it will be a shift from petrol cars to perhaps e-cars, but such a mass change is realistically many decades off in a country with low wages and a high cost of living.

I’ve been a commuting walker my whole life, lucky to live close enough to schools, universities and work to be able to walk. Not all the walks have been necessarily easy ones, for four years I was walking 40 minutes each way in Christchurch to get to and from the university to work, but that was still quicker and easier than trying to make use of the failing public transport system. For the past 20 years I have been walking 25 minutes each way and the walk, although on the face of it is exactly the same, is in reality different every day. Walking makes you notice your surroundings: it embeds you in a locality and is a type of engaged place-making. If the flaneur is an undirected wandering and noticing and engaging with place and people, the daily walking commute can take that critical eye and critical engagement and apply to it to what could seem, on the face of it, a mundane everyday experience. I’ve also never walked with headphones for walking is also thinking time: thinking about what I see, thinking about the day to come or the day I’ve had, thinking about what I hear in the world around me. I would also say walking is a perfect combination of physical and mental health activity; low stress on the body and de-stressing the mind.

There was a time when there were far more people, of all ages, walking. Primary school children walked en-masse, high-school students likewise; and while they still do, the number has steadily decreased over the past two decades. At the same time, I have noticed and ever-increasing number of cars on the routes I walk with ever longer queues waiting to get thought the lights accompanied by an increase in agitated driving as well. But it is the massive reduction in the number of walking university students and walking adults I have noticed – both on the way to university but also in the streets around it. I thought this might just be an issue of student relocation of flats but then I noticed something else.

Over the past 26 years my wife and I have regularly gone walking in the evenings and in the weekends. We did so first on the hill suburbs and around the harbour of Wellington and then through the flat suburbs of Christchurch and around the perimeter of Hagley park.

Usually there were many walkers and runners – especially so around Hagley Park – but also a significant number walking and running the suburbs. But ever since the Covid lockdowns the numbers have dropped dramatically and never recovered. The decline has been especially apparent in the younger population, not only teenagers but people up to middle age. But even the middle-aged walkers are fast disappearing while the retiree walkers are now almost non-existent. I wonder if one of the long-term effects of the Covid-lockdown and the post-lockdown fear has been a type of long-Covid of an ever-increasing sedentary society? At the same time, the rise in e-scooters enables the sedentary to relocate themselves without any physical effort. I’ve also noticed a steady decline in the number of runners. I ran regularly for decades, only stopping in the last year when I was reminded it took me longer to cool down properly than it did to go for the run. But like my walking observations, when out running there was, post-Covid, a dramatic decrease in runners in the suburbs.

We continue to debate and discuss the social, economic and the mental health impacts of the Covid lockdowns and how these have continued into the present day. But I also wonder about the physical activity impacts, especially those of everyday walking. Will the longest-term impacts of Covid-lockdown in New Zealand actually, in the end, be the impact on physical activity? Yet walking is an everyday physical and mental exercise that for millennia was a central element of being human. We are – or at least were – walking creatures: homo ambulatio; are we now increasingly, post-Covid, homo immobilis?