Tag Archives: commuting

The lost glove

January 1, 2014

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit, author of the insightful and highly-quotable history of walking Wanderlust, recalls in a chapter on urban abandonment filming a movie set in a vacant, crumbling hospital. On the ribbon of a prop she was making, she embroidered an absurdist proverb from the Vladimir Nabokov novel Pale Fire that her aunt had given her a few birthdays before. It said, “The lost glove is happy.”

Around this time of year, signs of the human hand doing its work on the environment are plentiful. On these cold days when lone sodden gloves populate the streets, clustering gloomily near bus stops, the proverb is a heartwarming thing to keep in mind. As we look into the new year with optimism, making improbable wishes and resolutions, it’s an important reminder to look on some bright side of things, however strange. As Nabokov’s narrator comments in the Pale Fire foreword, “Now ‘happy’ is something extremely subjective.” Maybe the lost glove really is happy. It certainly is free.

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It’s uncertain what this implies for the lost hats and scarves, among other things, but we can hope they’re happy too. The glasses don’t have to be rose-colored.

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Happy New Year!

Snowy day

December 15, 2013
from The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats

from ‘The Snowy Day’ by Ezra Jack Keats

Saturday’s commute isn’t quite as fantastic as Ezra Jack Keats’ famous treatise on the merits of snow days, but it’s close.

Snow is hitting me in the face. People come bundled in pairs, shuffling along. It’s hard not to think of duos boarding the biblical ark before the flood. In questionable logic, pedestrians take to the streets as cars grapple for traction.

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A pair of pedestrians walking down Woodward.

A pair of medics are out in front of an apartment building, waiting agitatedly. As I hike closer to them, one yells, “Hey, are you the patient?”
“The patient? No,” I holler back, laughing. How, in this moment, hale and red-cheeked, might I look as though I require medical assistance? Maybe these perambulations are an outsider’s preoccupation.
They shrug, frustrated, and climb back in the ambulance. When I catch up with them a minute later, they roll down the window. “How far are you going? Do you need a ride?”
“No, I’m fine,” I say, all instinct, “Just to the library,” abbreviate my course for their benefit. The streets aren’t empty; the buzz is that the library is closing early. Hastening is absurd. There’s still time. The snow slows everybody’s footsteps, covers their tracks.

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Darkness takes longer than usual to show up this evening. When it does, the snows reflects light, giving the sky has that comforting wintery pallor. It brings about memories of being small and warm, someone making hot chocolate with marshmallows, the lofty roof of a blanket fort overhead. Brushing off my coat and hat, I take the long route home, searching for snowmen other than myself. There aren’t any yet. No snow angels either, but residents are out with shovels and brooms in a seemingly futile effort to keep the still-falling snow. Someone walks with a dog up past its elbows in fluff.

Snowfall gauge.

Snowfall gauge?

All in all, it was hardly a snowpocalypse. The National Weather Service claims just six inches of snow in Detroit, but as the blustery flakes fell into windswept dune-like formations, it seemed like more. Of course, winter is yet to come.

A railroad is like a lie

November 13, 2013

The intersection of walking and art is never far away. Few can get there faster than Steve Panton, artist, engineer, and proprietor of the gallery 2739 Edwin in Hamtramck. Panton has been exploring the city on impressive, intimidatingly long walks for years, accumulating insight on his surroundings, at one point cataloging 120 former bank buildings. His excellent essay on walking appeared in Model D. In testament to his enthusiasm for the subject, he curated a show of eight local artists’ work in Walking Distance (pdf) in 2009.

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Panton’s most recent exhibition is part of the show working title, on view at Alley Culture in Woodbridge Farm from November 1-23. This Sunday evening Alley Culture will host a special presentation of Panton providing background for his piece, historian Martin Hershock discussing the transformation of landscape and culture during the expansion of the railroads, and a screening of the film “Who is Bozo Texino?”

The piece, titled A railroad is like a lie, consists of steel forms carefully selected on railroad track walks and notecards typewritten with a historic timeline, photos, maps, figures, and quotes, giving context to the rusty artifacts. The fragments are arranged with the smallest at the beginning of the timeline to the left, and the larger ones occupying a second tier below. The arrangement unintentionally lends the pieces a kind of momentum, not unlike a train picking up speed.

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Panton has been collecting the shards for several years, taking just one during each walk he makes along the tracks between Joseph Campau and the area between Third and Rosa Parks, depending on his destination. Because his rules advise against putting a piece back if a more appealing one appears, some walks yield none. He doesn’t keep track of the chronology of his selections; there are too many, the ones on view at Alley Culture only a part of the whole collection.

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During a recent Saturday afternoon’s open hours, Panton himself was sitting the gallery, outfitted in cycling apparel. He bikes a lot in the summer, he says, but can’t wait for winter walks, his favorite season on foot. An open book was lying facedown on a stool next to the woodstove. Panton was chatting with a friend, explaining the end of common-ground cattle grazing on the farms that the train tracks cut through. He picked up notecards as reference, pinpointing locations on several small maps.

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The deceptively simple metal pieces seemed to attract tactile investigation. A visitor touched a particularly wild form of metal spiraling on itself, one of the few that extended beyond the second dimension. He interjected, “Did you see any cattle skulls lying around?” Panton, smiling, said, “No, not between here and Hamtramck.”

When asked about the research phase of his work, Panton laughed, recounting how it had all been carried out in a three-week period prior to the opening of the show. The walks came first; all else followed. While his command of history and willingness to engage in any aspect of the topic were admirable, what’s striking is how much of the actual human experience vanishes into academic context, the way photographs displace memories and become what’s “real.” Perhaps this is Panton leaving the introspective quiet of his walks in the personal realm, or mirroring the way that locomotive machines overtook the land.

Does knowledge of the historical context of his walks cause him to perceive them with greater awareness? “I definitely do see it differently, now. It’s less of a convenient and fun way to get from one point to another but a part of history,” he said. “You can see how Detroit grew up around the railroads, how Hamtramck especially exists because of the railroads.”

Don’t miss the rest of the story during “A night out on the rails” this Sunday, November 17 from 7-8:30 at Alley Culture Detroit. Alley Culture is located in the red building off of the alley between Trumbull and Lincoln, just south of Willis.

SAFEWALK your way around campus

November 6, 2013

Addressing Wayne State after the death last week of a law student whose body was found near the Packard Plant after being transported there from campus, university president M. Roy Wilson said:

Most people feel very safe walking around our campus. However, even if you do not feel threatened, you should still exercise caution, and consider taking advantage of our Safe Walk program, particularly if you are alone after dark. Call 313-577-2222, and officers will either monitor you on camera until you reach your car or your campus destination, or escort you personally.

Who knew? As it turns out, this useful and undoubtedly well-intended program has existed for eight years, the “most underutilized service” offered by the Wayne State police, according to Lieutenant Scott, who monitors crime statistics and sends out the monthly CAMPUSWATCH email.

The program is simple: call the Wayne State police, let them know where you are and where you’re going. Depending on location and availibility, either a cadet will come to escort you on foot, or, if no cadets are available, a uniformed officer in a marked car will come drive very slowly behind you until you arrive safely at your destination. “Official policy is, we’re supposed to watch you walk,” Lieutenant Scott explained, and usually they do. “Unofficial policy is, hop in the car and we’ll take you where you need to go.” With some places on campus “it can take some time, you know, to watch you walk.” That’s why, he said, driving is easier. “It frees us up faster, but it’s basically whatever you want.”

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If nobody knows about the program, who uses it? Since the reminder after the law student’s death last week, pedestrians have requested about seventy SAFEWALKs. To how this compares to averages for the program, Scott responded that they don’t really keep track of numbers for it, or a breakdown of student versus faculty use. “People need us, we’re there for them. That’s what we really care about,” he said candidly. Being there for people is more challenging than it sounds. One of the most frustrating reasons for low awareness is that the police just can’t get the word out. “We used to talk to each incoming freshman class during orientation, but in the past few years they won’t let us. Some upper-level administrator decided that students didn’t have time.” The priorities set for students are questionable if time can’t be made for a quick presentation on campus safety at a university like Wayne State.

Retracing our steps to the means of monitoring pedestrians, the omnipresent cameras mentioned in Wilson’s statement may not be as creepy as they sound. The use of cameras isn’t actually very common, and depends on where you are and where you’re going — and in how much of a hurry you are to get there, another officer added wryly. “In some cases, we can follow with PTZ — pan-tilt-zoom — cameras, but we don’t say we can watch you walk on camera if we can’t see you all the way there, if there is any kind of obstruction.” Due to incomplete visual coverage of campus, most service is rendered in person.

If officers can watch students and faculty walk around campus, can they not also watch those who might be preying on them? Sometimes, but not always, Scott said, sidestepping the matter of the camera feed’s helpfulness in preventing crime or identifying criminals. Whatever their use, the department is vying for more cameras, and perhaps more usefully, more awareness in the university community.

It would be nice to see this program publicized, even just with some information posted on the Wayne State police department site. It would be better yet to have it expanded to something a little less onerous, less stigmatized, less wholly motivated by grim fear. Calling to get a walking buddy on campus is a fine idea, but less so if the buddy pads along behind you on four wheels, weighing a few tons and taking up the entire sidewalk. A volunteer-based campus walking network could help students meet and relate to one another, all while taking a fresh air study break. That, or give criminals an easier way to nab five iPhones at once.

The rules

February 23, 2013

Walking into the world surrounding Harper High School in Chicago is entering a whole nother realm. A place it may be best not to walk into at all, actually, at least not without following the rules.

Rule number one, look at a map.
Rule number two, never walk by yourself.
Rule number three, never walk with someone else.

Confused yet? This American Life was too, so it sent three reporters to the school near which twenty-nine student shootings took place last year. Arriving at the school at the beginning of the academic year, they stayed for a full semester, and then they made this radio program. There is so much going on at Harper High School that the show was divided into halves; Part One aired last week, followed by another hour this week.

Rule number four, don’t use the sidewalk.
Every day at dismissal, kids drift out of Harper High School and walk along Wood Street– actually, right down the middle of Wood Street. It’s a strange scene. Cars drive slowly, waiting for students to move out of the way. One teacher told me that when she first arrived at Harper, she thought this was just plain hooliganism. The teenagers taking over. One afternoon, a girl named Alex explained, that’s not it at all.
“We feel safer like this. For some reason, we just feel safe like that. we never like to walk past trees and stuff, there’s too much stuff going on.”
“Too much stuff going on” is shorthand here for the shootings, the fights, the craziness. It’s better to walk down the middle of the street, where you can keep a broad view of things, and where you have a few more seconds to run if you need to.

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“Too much stuff going on.”

Some students in particularly compromising situations receive rides to and from school from administrators, and some choose not to leave the house except to go to school.

Chatting with a student named Deonte, the reporter asked, “Do you ever go out, just around the neighborhood?” Deonte insightfully replied, “Oh, no. No, not at all. And in a way, that can be bad as well. Because that’s when depression is easy to set in. That took a hold of me, because I’ve been in the house for about three years. I’ve been staying in the house a lot.”

What would you do?

Listen to Harper High School, Part One and Part Two and give it some thought.

Walking, “an untapped reservoir of opportunity”

December 4, 2012

Detroit Area Rambling Network hopes that you enjoyed a very merry Noel Night this past weekend! The record balmy temperatures may not have been as festive as we’d like, but threw no slushy obstacles in our path. We’re looking forward already to next year’s celebration of commerce, culture, and favorite Midtown establishments. Isn’t it satisfying to tick off items from your holiday shopping list on foot?

While it’s undeniably genial when an evening sets itself up for us to stroll in it, there is a clear need for more of these occasions — ones that you can make yourself, every day. This is especially crucial in the glare of recent studies on active transportation, that is to say, commuting on foot or bike. Previous studies have focused on Americans’ dearth of recreational meandering or workout jaunts, leaving this unfortunate statistic unobserved. Less than 25% of Americans spend more than ten consecutive minutes in active transportation as part of their weekly commute, according to research by the Yale School of Public Health. Furie and Desai, the lead researchers, went so far as to suggest that active transportation is “an untapped reservoir of opportunity for physical activity for many U.S. adults.”

This new figure is perhaps predictable, since the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of active transportation worldwide, says James Sallis, of the University of California San Diego’s behavioral medicine division. He cautions that our transportation preferences have been sculpted over decades by transit and land use policies, and this is turning out to be more detrimental than anticipated.

“Not surprisingly, the findings highlight that transportation policies that essentially ignore walking and cycling appear to be contributing to the major chronic diseases that account for 80 percent of healthcare costs.

These new findings point out how transportation policy is health policy.”

The news outside of these borders is equally grim, reporting that people are walking 80 miles fewer per year in Britain.

“Whereas in the late 1990s we each clocked up about 250 miles of walking journeys, by 2008 that had dropped to 170.

Look further back and the picture is even more startling: since 1975 the proportion of journeys taken by foot has halved, from 44 to 22 per cent. Now, a fifth of all car journeys cover a mile or less.”

Isn’t it absurd to think we’re somehow justified in regarding walking as “an untapped reservoir of physical activity,” and that “active living” should be a pioneering field of study? How paradoxical, to sit at a desk researching how insufficiently people move, and how to entice them to move more in the future. The Detroit Area Rambling Network is so excited for this future that it can’t sit still. We just can’t wait, so we’re going out for a walk. See you there!

Marchetti’s constant

November 15, 2012

In this interesting piece on commuting and urban wilderness, Chris Turner explores the pedestrian routes available to him emerging from Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, and reports back on Marchetti’s constant, frustratingly constructed sidewalks, and some Thoreau, for good measure.

“The core of Marchetti’s seminal paper is an examination of “travel time budgets” through the ages (based on research first done by Yacov Zahavi in his fieldwork for the U.S. Department of Transportation and the World Bank in the late 1970s and early 1980s). Zahavi had found that regardless of culture, class, creed or access to advanced technology, the mean amount of time people all over the world spend in everyday transit is about an hour. Marchetti looked at the historical record and determined that the mean held true all the way back to neolithic cave sites. He refers to this as “the quintessential unity of traveling instincts around the world.”

“For more than 10,000 years, Marchetti’s Constant has held sway over how we site our homes, do our day’s work and build communities. And for all but the last 100 or so years, virtually all of those hour-long daily commutes were made on foot. What would it be like, I wondered, to obey Marchetti’s Constant as a pedestrian in the modern city?”

In pursuit of an answer to his question, he muses,

“Here’s something, though, that might surprise Thoreau; it was certainly the most arresting lesson Marchetti’s Constant taught me. The cities have become Wildness.
We just don’t know about it because we never walk through it.

This hardly seems revelatory in Detroit, where urban wilderness has gone a step beyond the layers of crumbling concrete Turner finds, more in stride with wildness as Thoreau originally intended. It’s a coy reminder of how lucky it is to share a city with the pheasants rooting through backyards and the small red fox loping amid dusky trees in the Dequindre Cut.

Read For Pedestrians, Cities Have Become Wilderness at the Atlantic Cities.