One of the things we wanted when we moved to America was to live in a place within
walking distance of shops. Hanover, where we settled, is a small college town. It has
a traditional Main Street, residential districts with big green lawns and a few parks. In short,
it is a great place to walk. Strangely enough, nearly everyone lives within a five-minute walk
of the shops, but no one walks.
I walk to town every day. I go to the post office or the local bookshop, and if I feel like it,
I stop for a cup of coffee. All this is a big part of my life and I wouldn’t dream of doing it
any other way than on foot. People have got used to this strange behaviour now. Yet from the
early years I remember a situation when a neighbour saw me on my way back home after my
usual morning visit to town. He slowed down and asked if I wanted a lift.
“But I’m going your way. It’s no trouble,” he insisted when I politely refused.
“Honestly, I prefer to walk.”
“Well, if you’re absolutely sure,” he said and drove off feeling as if he were leaving
the scene of an accident.
People have become so used to driving that they have no idea what their legs can do.
The other day I was in a town called Etna to collect my son from his piano lesson when a car
stopped outside the local post office and a man about my age went inside. He was there
for three minutes, then came out, drove no more than 16 feet to the general store next door,
and popped in again. And the man looked really fit. I’m sure he jogs, plays squash and does
all kinds of healthy things, but he drives everywhere. It’s crazy.
Go to almost any suburb developed in the US in the last thirty years and you will not find
a pavement anywhere. Often you won’t find a single zebra crossing. Last summer in Maine
we stopped in one of those endless zones of shopping malls and fast-food places. I noticed
there was a bookshop across the street and wanted to go there while my wife was having
coffee. Although the bookshop was no more than 50 feet away, I discovered there was no way
to get there on foot. I would have to run across a motorway with three lanes of fast-moving
traffic. Finally, I got into my car and drove across. It seemed ridiculous but I realized that
I was probably the only person looking around for a zebra crossing.