WALKING: Self-sufficiency on legs

An often (and conveniently) neglected aspect of self-sufficiency is the ability to get to places near and far on one’s own two feet. It is not that often that Londoners find themselves caught short transport-wise – even if the buses and trains don’t run on time, they usually eventually turn up. For this reason, it is probably safe to say that fairly few people in London regularly undertake journeys by foot of more than a mile, if that. You can’t count long shopping trips down Oxford Street either — those are more of a mosey or an amble, repeatedly off-set by little sit-downs in coffee shops, benches and changing rooms; I’m talking about proper walks, crossing extended distances on foot.

I live in zone 3 of London, on the Piccadilly line. Back in April of last year, in an attempt to save money on my tube fare, I started getting off two stops early at Caledonian road in zone 2, walking the remaining 2 miles to university. To do this I gave up using the student Oyster card and reverted to a normal pay-as-you-go type. This saves me about £30 to £40 each month.

My original intentions were mainly economic, but I found great benefits in walking those extra 4 miles per day. I feel healthier and my legs have gained strength. The walk is also a good time-out from my studies, allowing me to reflect on other things in my life. It’s just the kind of opportunity for idleness that one could easily waste by plugging into their Ipod and putting their brain in standby mode (and then get hit by that bus you didn’t hear coming).

Out of interest, from the time I started this new commuting method, I also began clocking the distance I covered as a way of motivating myself, counting any walking journey of one kilometer or more (I am a metric man at heart). In the last ten months, I have walked over 900 miles in this way. I wouldn’t say I’ve been pushing myself, either, and the more I walk the easier and more enjoyable it becomes.

On occasion I walk the whole distance home, just over seven miles. The first time I did so I ended up on the final mile feeling like my legs were about to fall off, but now I do this regularly, sometimes without planning to, just feeling the need to walk a little further. This also helps make up for those days of heavy rain when I take the tube the whole way and pay full fare; I may be odd but I’m not completely stupid.

This little money-saving ploy, of course, wouldn’t suit everyone, but it is always worth getting to know one’s local area and discovering how close certain places are to each other. It seems that many Londoners still don’t realize that Central London is surprisingly small, and walking from King’s Cross to Victoria, for example, is a vigorous but manageable 5km walk. I know people who take the tube to travel just one stop, but once you take into account the bustle of getting to the platform and waiting for the train, it can at times be just as quick to walk there.

The crucial aspect of relying on walking to get around is understanding that even if you are physically fit you will probably still find it arduous to begin with. Walking the equivalent of 5km a day by ambling around the office is not the same as walking the full distance in one go. Similarly, going for a weekly 10km hike in the hills is not the same as consistently walking long distances every day. When you really start using your leg muscles on a daily basis you will initially feel the strain on your thighs, calves, buttocks, back and especially on your feet, as your body begins to demand its regular pit-stops. Of course, it is wise to listen to your body, but also to push it a little further each day. For this reason, like with any good exercise, it is wise to gradually increase the distances you cross, and a day of rest each week is always a good idea. As the American comedian Paul Reiser once said, we tend to neglect our feet as they are so inconveniently placed on the other end of our bodies. But, trust me, once you really start using your feet you tend to start paying attention to their little aches and pains and learn to apply a little more maintenance and TLC. I’d rather get used to this now while I have the choice than be forced to do so when the options have been reduced – I’m not talking worst case scenario either, but something as mundane as breaking down along an empty road, or missing the last bus after a night out.

As for worst case scenario, if you think I’m exaggerating, you might be right, I hope you’re right, but ever-rising petrol prices affect all transport costs, not just cars. Motorized transport in general is all very nice, but it is increasingly expensive and relies on an infrastructure built around reliable oil delivery and road maintenance. Now I know that some of you are already thinking “what about the bicycle?” Cycling is a wonderful way to get around, but not only do bicycles rely on spare parts and regular maintenance, modern bikes also manage to be both ridiculously expensive whilst at the same time being less reliable and less practical . . . and then some scumbag steals it. Whilst exploring issues of self-sufficiency does not necessarily have to incur extreme scenarios of social collapse or natural disasters (it’s just a hobby for some), author and blogger Dmitry Orlov described in his excellent book ‘Reinventing Collapse’ the main drawback of bicycles in times of greater self-sufficiency:

The most successful form of transportation is by far the bicycle. While there is currently a bicycle for almost every person in the US, these bicycles by and large sit still in garages and basements, rusting and gathering dust. About a tenth of them might still be rideable at any given time. If large numbers of people attempt to start using them, the immediate effect will be a shortage of bicycle tires, which deteriorate due to dry rot. Even if this problem finds a solution, it will soon be discovered that the vast majority of the bicycles are in fact toys designed for sport, not for hauling loads or for the rigors of a daily commute, and most of them will fail within a year of hard daily use.

 From ‘Reinventing Collapse’ by Dmitry Orlov, reproduced with kind permission from the author.
For more related information you can look up his blog:

But let’s take a step back (no pun intended) and stave off the worst-case scenarios and remember the best reasons to take up walking: it’s cheap, healthy and interesting. Places that always seemed out of the way suddenly become accessible, and there are always things to see that you never knew were there. Walking the same path every single day can get a little tedious, but in London that is when you start to explore the dozen or so other paths you can take, exploring new places and finding shortcuts and links you never knew between familiar places. It’s what I like to call going from A to C via Z. There is a great sense of satisfaction to be had from walking down an unfamiliar street and unexpectedly emerging onto a place you know very well. And even if you never actually do walk all the way home, it is always good to have an idea of how to walk it if you had to.

UPDATE 01/03/12: Today I just crossed the thousand mile threshold. That means that in the last eleven months I travelled one thousand miles’ worth of journeys on foot I wouldn’t have normally done had I stuck to public transport all the way, and I’ve saved about £350 in the process. So I’m celebrating that milestone tonight with a well-deserved beer. Cheers y’all!


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