The Wrong Weather for Walking

Urban Planner Jeff Speck has travelled all over the United States advocating for greater walkability. He claims that there is one constant in every city that he visits: after his presentation, at least one person will pull him aside, and patiently explain to him why the weather in that particular city is unsuitable for walking. The southeast is too hot and humid, the southwest is too hot and dry, the northwest is too rainy, the northeast is too snowy, and the middle is too windy. And yet people lived in these regions for ten thousand years, before the automobile made walking optional.



I do have sympathy for the Ottawa winter walker. I’ve pulled a grocery cart through enough snowbanks, to readily acknowledge that those with baby buggies or wheelchairs have some serious challenges in an Ottawa winter. Nonetheless, with the snowy season not far off, I’d like to make the case for year-round accommodation of pedestrians in our not-always-fair city.


I believe it’s safe to say that most doctors would agree that we all benefit from getting outside every day. There may be rare exceptions to this among the seriously ill, the injured, or the frail elderly, but, by and large, most people will benefit from daily time spent outdoors, even in winter. But how do we stay motivated to do so?

The conditions that make walking difficult in winter also make driving difficult. Walking through fifty centimetres of snow is feasible, if challenging, but driving through fifty centimetres of unplowed snow is impossible.

As fall turns into winter, our options shrink, until, by January, there is no longer swimming, cycling, kayaking, tennis, golf, baseball, soccer, volleyball, or lawn bowling to be enjoyed outside. Some activities can be moved inside, but not during a pandemic. The worse the weather, the more the choice shrinks to the one activity at our doorstep: walking. So much the better, if there is a destination to keep us motivated to walk to. So the question is not so much, ”Is walking fun in an Ottawa winter?” as “What else is there to do outdoors on a dreary January weekday in Ottawa?” Many people will say they’ve never regretted getting out for a walk, however uninviting the weather looked from inside the house.



The conditions that make walking difficult in winter also make driving difficult. Walking through fifty centimetres of snow is feasible, if challenging, but driving through fifty centimetres of unplowed snow is impossible. So weather that might keep a person from driving to the swimming pool for a workout, need not keep that person from going for a walk.

The worse the weather, the more the choice shrinks to the one activity at our doorstep: walking. So much the better, if there is a destination to keep us motivated to walk to.

We are seeing increasingly severe weather events around the world that keep vehicles off the road entirely. In Ottawa, we can point to the ice storm of 1998 and the metre-of-snow-in-one-week event of March 2008. If we are going to keep ourselves and our neighbours provisioned during such events, we will need a population that is fit, equipped, interconnected, and used to walking in difficult weather.


It is never really the wrong weather for walking.



~ JANET MARK WALLACE is a regular blog contributor for Walkable Ottawa