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Image: Adam Hancher

My friend Kevin walks 12 miles a day, commuting by foot from Madrona to Capitol Hill. His wife, Ann, and their kids walk so much, the family once went a week without cracking a car door. This winter two of the teenage sisters had a meeting to which they gamely set out on foot. It was in Kirkland.

I share this not to make you feel crappy about yourself and your coddled children, although you might. I know I do. It’s just that something new is clearly taking hold around here. Waves of pedestrians pour off the flanks of Capitol Hill every morning. Now they can even walk across the 520 bridge from Bellevue. (Yes, Eastsiders walk: See the fuss Kirklanders are raising about a walking trail becoming a transit corridor.) 

The pedestrian advocacy organization Feet First says more Seattleites are walking to work than ever. Maybe construction reroutings have made coming downtown in a vehicle, even a bus, unthinkable. Parking tickets finally did it to Kevin, who realized one day that every single thing about navigating Capitol Hill’s mounting density was easier without a car. “It was hard to find parking, I’d get frustrated in traffic, and then I’d lose a half hour decompressing,” he said. So he turned the decompressing into the commute.

You want to talk benefits? Slowing down. Calves of steel. Carbon neutrality. Discovering that the hard talks inevitable among kin—in my family we call them “fights”—are served by fresh air and parallel advancement. Sure, there are blisters and bone bruises and, okay, occasional personal chafing. There’s shredding a new pair of Brooks or Asics every three months.

There’s also powering your own self two miles every 30 minutes, if you’re Kevin, who sometimes outpaces the cars on Madison. The beauty part being: The tipping point in density that has made Seattle so stupid to drive has created the very dynamism that’s made it worthier than ever of seeing slow. 

I set out from Discovery Park on a sparkling spring morning, keen to throw my arms around the city by walking its widest girth. Down from the wilds of Magnolia, along the south bank of the Ship Canal, over the Fremont Bridge and up the rise to Green Lake, then a hard right to Magnuson Park’s Lake Washington shore—10 miles in a full four hours, longer with breaks, longer than Google Maps told me it would take, way longer than I’m used to doing just about anything.

It felt countercultural, the pace. “Walking forces me to be where I am,” Ann had remarked, and where I was kept surprising me. The Ship Canal Trail starting at Fishermen’s Terminal revealed the interstices of neighborhoods in a landscape you can’t see from a car: the storage facilities and auto salvages that lie on the literal other side of tracks, alive with stray dogs and folks dutifully sweeping their encampments. It’s 1934 down here, unreeling in real time when you’re walking, and when the industrial grit gives way to the manicured greenway hugging the canal like a Parisian esplanade—you feel that disconnect in real time too. 

Forget the Space Needle. From street level Seattle’s dominant landmark is this widening socioeconomic chasm. In his seven years of daily walking, Kevin’s seen the multigenerational family in the Central District home, then the “For Sale” sign, then the granite-countertop remodel. He’s seen the burnished portal of a fashionable Pike/Pine restaurant become a sleeping alcove after dinner. In Seattle right now the upwardly and downwardly mobile seem like two sides of a single coin, much the way so many Seattle neighborhoods, Mount Baker to Sunset Hill, are divided by ridges into the Have Side on the view slope and the Have-a-Lot-Less Side on the other. 

And so on the final leg of my walk, winding down the Have Side of View Ridge, what I felt was vulnerable. Three years ago a UW study found that pedestrian traffic signals allowed more time for crossing in Ballard than they did in Rainier Valley—a problem since addressed, but spotlighting the mix of social injustice and vehicular danger no pedestrian can miss. Pedestrians are small—a fact every citizen who walks, in this city built for cars, learns in her bones. The city is currently updating its Pedestrian Master Plan, whose research has so far revealed the primary importance of safe walking spaces, but, as Kevin and Ann’s harrowing tales of near misses remind me, a walker must dress brightly and proceed defensively. Doesn’t matter whether a collision is caused by the walker or the driver, after all, when the walker is the one who’ll leave in a bag. 

Walking, it hit me as I eased onto the gentle green of Magnuson Park, is political. (Fitting, so was Warren G. Magnuson.) It’s choosing to be small; it’s uniting by definition. That day my stride connected 13 neighborhoods, 9 commercial hubs, 10 coffeehouses, 3 PCCs, dozens of microclimates—and suddenly this idea of lidding I-5 with a park uniting Capitol Hill and downtown, floated by a local architect, made new sense. 

Of course we’re yearning to keep our neighborhoods connected in this city that’s growing so fast it sometimes feels to be spiraling out of control. If Seattle’s walkable—maybe it’s still small.

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