Walking and talking about walking, with Bob Otwell

Thursday afternoon I took a walk with Bob Otwell to talk about walking. And more specifically about making Traverse City a more walkable place so more people will just plain walk around.

Sound like a stupid idea to write about? I hope not, because walking, as simple as it is, has amazing power to do lots of the things we need done right now, as Bob pointed out to me during our 1.5-hour stroll on a sunny, 8-degree day.

Bob, by the way, is a great person to go on a walk with because part of his professional responsibility is to think about walking and to help people walk more. He’s executive director of TART Trails and also leads Traverse City’s Grand Vision planning project, the citizen-led effort to keep our region beautiful and fun to live in as it grows.

Since this is a blog I’ll spare you all the details of our long discussion about walking. But here’s the gist in 9 quick points.

1. Our nation has a massive overweight problem: walking helps.
2. Our nation has a spiritual malaise: walking helps.
3. Our nation is trying to reduce CO2 production: walking helps.
4. Our nation is trying to reduce traffic without building new roads: walking helps.
5. Our nation is trying to strengthen communities: walking helps.
6. Our nation is struggling with a bad economy: walking is free.
7. Our nation is struggling with crazy health care costs: walking helps.
8. Our northern towns are beautiful places to look at: walking helps.
9. Every person wants to be happier: walking helps.

I know, I’ve just reported to you a bunch of stuff you already know. So why is walking so rare? Granted it was 8 degrees yesterday, but Bob and I saw nobody else walking around.

At one point a most telling and humorous thing happened. I was walking with my hands in my coat pockets and a woman opened her house door and, holding a pair of gloves, yelled to me across the street. “You look like you don’t have any gloves. Here, take these.”

“Thanks, but no, I have gloves,” I yelled back. But Bob and I wondered, Is it so rare to see two men walking that a homeowner automatically thinks they must be homeless and in need of clothing? Clear proof that we need to walk more.

One of Bob’s main observations is that Traverse City needs to allocate more resources to keeping sidewalks and the TART trail clear of snow, as evidenced by the many snowbanks we had to scale along the way–something many people would be unable to do or unwilling to put up with.

Bob also talked about people converting car trips to walking or bike trips, like short runs to the store and stuff. But I said, for me and the people I know, walking is just a wonderful way to feel better mentally and physically, to connect with friends, enjoy some fresh air. It’s a pleasure thing, just go for a walk every day. Be happier. Simple.

To that end, if you live in Traverse City, you are dang lucky because there are so many great places to walk. The neighborhoods, the bay, the grounds of the GT Commons, Boardman Lake Trail (one of TART’s most fantastic projects). Bob walked with me to the new bridge they built over the river outlet at the north end of Boardman Lake—classic.

But if you live in a suburb, a troubling set of statistics. Traverse City has 63 miles of sidewalks. Garfield Township has less than 1 mile. East Bay Township has less than 1 mile. You might want to advocate for more walkways if you live in those places. But to balance that, here’s an encouraging statistic from the Grand Vision process: 90 percent of respondents to a survey said a high priority should be placed on making our towns more walkable. The highest rating of any of the wish list items–there’s hope!

Well, don’t want to belabor what’s supposed to be a simple point: go for a walk. Feel good.

Jeff Smith is editor of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine and mynorth.com. smith@traversemagazine.com

Article Comments

3 thoughts on “Walking and talking about walking, with Bob Otwell”

  1. hurray for the champions of walking! In harbor springs, we’re working to get safe trails around and to our downtowns, so that we can walk safely alongside speeding cars. We even have a safe routes to school program dedicated to making sure there are sidewalks everywhere within a three mile radius of school buildings. We live about a mile out of town, and we walk in with the kids all the time– it slows us down, has us checking out critter tracks in the ditches, and gives us time to talk– and time to simply be quiet, measuring our steps, heading somewhere together.

  2. Jeff – thanks for the walk, I enjoyed it. A side story to our walk was my nice chat with your coworker Jodi the morning of our walk. I was shoveling the public sidewalk in front of our home, and she was walking to the office. I know Jodi, who lives down the street, only because she has walked or biked past our house for the past decade. Our street is a wonderful place to walk and bike, and that fact has introduced me to good people like Jodi, and enhanced my relationship with friends to numerous to mention. Strengthening community by walking – I should say so!

  3. As an Old Mission Resident, I’m excited there is more talk about connecting neiborhoods with trails. As a physician, I am very excited about getting ‘bodies in motion’. Those who walk regularly, love walking and those who newly discover it, often wonder out loud why they hadn’t started sooner. It is always nice when a community offers ease of walking. So many of my patients reasonably suggest that it is ‘too dangerous’ in their neighborhoods with homes located along busy roads in the suburbs with no sidewalks. Lets hope we can make safe walkways for all!

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