pedestrian citizenship

Yesterday morning, I took my camera along when I walked my son to school. Our walks are usually lively, largely because my son is full of stories, adventures, plots and plans. Yesterday was no different. First we were talking about homonyms – which led to monty python-esque statements (“That vile vial!”) and then he regaled me with a story about an invention that could help you climb mountains. This involved pulleys and buttons and wires and hooks. I’m sorry to say that I couldn’t quite keep it straight, but clearly he could.

It was a beautiful morning. We’d had a blizzard on Monday, and after we’d dug ourselves out, another 5 cm of fresh snow had fallen. Snow floated on the trees. Large flakes danced in the gentle wind. The air felt fresh. And time hadn’t quite returned to normal. We were still in that post-blizzard time languor.

It seemed like a perfect time to take some pictures. And so, lingering over the walk home, I did.

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But as I look back at the photos I took yesterday, I am struck more by the photos that I didn’t take than the ones that I did. What’s missing in the photos is not accidental; rather, I actively ignored, erased, and pushed it away. Cars. Cars. And more cars.

I don’t like cars. I can absolutely concede their usefulness. But I find them aesthetically displeasing. I find them environmentally toxic. I hate the culture that they foster.

St. John’s is an eminently walkable city. I’m in the suburbs and it’s only 4 km to the harbor and downtown, and less than 3 up to another shopping district. But the car rules supreme here. And in the winter, it’s a nightmare for those of us who prefer alternative modes of transportation.

Hard-working activist folks in this city have fought long and hard for city sidewalk clearing. Debates have been impassioned. Noisy. And ongoing now for years now – far longer, indeed, than our tenure in this city. It’s a bit better this year, but still. The city sidewalks in my neighbourhood are under 8 feet of snow. The roads, meanwhile, are perfectly plowed. The cars swipe two inches next to you. Most of them are careful. But nobody walking feels safe.

And still I walk. I walk to assert my right to the street. I walk because it feels good to be outside. I walk because the snow with my own eyes and under my own feet is much more magical than any snow through a window and under tires. I walk because it’s ridiculous to drive my son to school when school is only a five minute walk away.

But when we walk, I fear the cars. I fear their speed. And I know that there is nowhere for us to go if one comes barreling by.

There are no sidewalks in the winter. And because the city saw fit, at some point in the past, to approve endless neighbourhoods with no boulevards (the grassy patch between sidewalk and road), there’s no reliable way for homeowners to shovel their own walks. Believe me, we’ve tried. But when it’s 8 feet deep (no exaggeration), you don’t get far, even if you have a snowblower. To get through that, you need industrial equipment.

And so, when I look at the photos, I can’t see the wonder of freshly fallen snow.

Well, I can.

But it’s complicated by the fact that I had to watch my every step, worry about my son’s safety, dodge cars, and more. It is coloured by my frustrations at trying to pick my way over and around mountains of snow while cars whiz by at 70 km/hour.

If I had to pick a favourite photo, it would be the one of the two girls walking together. I see them almost every day. No idea what their names are, but we say “hello” now, nodding at each other with that kind of easy camaraderie that comes from sharing weather, walks, and snow. Their walk – and the one I took with my son – is my vision for what winter could – and should – be in this city.



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