Full disclosure: I do not own an automobile and do not want to own one. I have not driven an automobile since approximately 1984 and do not want ever to drive one again. I believe that automotive culture has been destructive of the natural environment, of urban design, and of human relationships. I walk not just out of necessity but out of preference (though I utilize Missoula’s “Mountain Line” bus system (it’s free!) when I need to), and I believe that walking contributes to my physical and emotional well-being.
In other words, I’m an oddball. But oddball or not, I love walking; and when Antonia Malchik writes (at Aeon) about “The End of Walking,” I believe she should be taken seriously.
Ms. Malchik begins by reminding us of what we ought to know but in this day and age do not: walking is basic to our humanity and indispensable to our health. Malchik writes:
There is nothing more human, more natural, more fundamental to our freedom, than transporting ourselves by foot. Nothing more purely instinctive than a child answering the desire of feet, legs, spine, and head, to dart forward in the direction his brain urges him to go.
Human beings evolved to move at a pace of three miles an hour, breathing easily, hands free, seeking food and shade. We tread without thinking, toes pushing off from the soil, cheeks lifted to catch the air, dirt caking in our nostrils. Walking is the first legacy of our post-ape genes, the trait that makes us most human: H. sapiens came only after H. erectus. We walked, and began our intellectual toddle toward the Anthropocene.
Our most basic access to health comes from walking. Walking for just 30 minutes five days a week has been shown to have a significant impact on everything from obesity to depression and colon cancer. A normal day’s errands would easily take more than 30 minutes on foot. When we get around by driving instead we’re liable to become overweight, insular, edgy. In his book The Story of the Human Body, the evolutionary biologist Daniel E Lieberman dissects the widespread chronic health problems that he thinks are linked to sitting for long periods, including in cars: muscle atrophy, lower-back pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. ‘We are inadequately adapted to being too physically idle, too well fed, too comfortable,’ he says.
But exercise is perhaps the narrowest of considerations. Walking is a complex interconnection of cognitive processes and sensory inputs. The transfer of information from foot to brain, between the inner ear and visual reception, is mind-bogglingly difficult to calculate. Only the most recent neuroscience research is beginning to grasp the bidirectional link between cognitive and motor functions, and the role cardiovascular health plays in our mental wellbeing.
In our asphalt nation, however, such considerations are blithely dismissed:
Kate Kraft, the National Coalition Director for America Walks, an advocacy organisation for walkability, says that, ever since towns began removing streetcars, we’ve undermined transit systems that would support the walker and planned instead for the car. Walking is an impediment to the car culture we revere, an experience we’ve intentionally designed out of our lives.
We came to scorn walking, to fear it. Real Americans fold themselves into cars, where they feel safe and in control. For exercise, the better-off mimic walkers, bicyclists, hikers, and farmers on stationary machines in health clubs. They and the middle class drive to parks and wilderness preserves for the privilege of walking outside among trees and birds and clean air, and the poor are left with vast wastelands of road and concrete; the advice to ‘walk three times a week for your health’ easier given than followed when there’s nowhere safe to place your foot.
Whatever the benefits of the internal combustion engine and the personal/family automobile, the unintended consequences have been immeasurable:
Over the past 80 years, walking simply as a way to get somewhere, let alone for pleasure, has become such an alien concept to Americans that small movements towards making neighbourhoods and communities more walkable are met with fierce, indignant resistance. Much of this fight has to do with who pays for the sidewalks. Once an area has been designed without walkability in mind, it’s extremely expensive to reverse the infrastructure.
There are neighborhoods in Missoula—urban neighborhoods, not outlying rural areas—that do not have sidewalks. Russell Street, one of Missoula’s busiest, lacks sidewalks for blocks on end. Montanans boast of their “cowboy culture”: real men, apparently, do not walk.
As Malchik explains:
At a deeper level, Americans’ attachment to private property and individual liberty – which are rife with a history of racial and class tensions – drives us to mistrust walking. ‘It’s that ‘get off my lawn, get off my sidewalk’ feeling,’ says Kate Kraft. ‘People get this fear that “undesirables” will be walking through their neighbourhoods.’
The car, the distrust of walkers, they’ve become the hallmarks of an everybody-for-herself, bootstrap-pulling, falsely self-sufficient American culture. Freedom to drive when and how we please is as American as apple pie and a gun holster; freedom to walk is not.
In many parts of the US, pedestrianism is seen as a dubiously counter-culture activity. Gated communities are only the most recent incarnation of the narrow-eyed suspicion with which we view unleashed strangers venturing outside on foot, much less anywhere near our homes.
Walking is not just countercultural, it’s dangerous, and not just because pedestrians are at a disadvantage to cars:
Walking opens us up to the menace of a world outside the built environments that we control. Driving, despite the high risk of crashes, injury, and death, masks itself as freedom: we’re not watching our backs. And once we’ve become unaccustomed to the movement of the air, the rustle of the trees, the sight of other people, they can startle. People who move differently and think differently from us become, from the safety of our fortress-homes and echo-chamber media and car-conduits that feed it all, threats to our way of life. And so we design towns and suburbs, neighbourhoods and cities, unfriendly to the walker, to those who break out of the paradigms we’ve deemed safe.
I can attest to the fact that when walking, you encounter people you don’t know; you have to decide about making eye contact and offering a friendly greeting to complete strangers! And some of the people you encounter are walking because they can’t afford to own cars: that is, they are poor!
Despite the chance of such terrifying experiences, Antonia Malchik thinks walking is worth it. In fact, she very explicitly encourages us to do it:
Open your door; go for a walk. Feel the spring in your step, the buoyancy in your spine, the loose-limbed gait, as more than clichés. Take one last, lingering moment to appreciate this miraculous thing before we lose it forever.
I’ve never met Antonia Malchik, but as a fellow Montanan, I will extend the following offer: come to Missoula sometime, Ms. Malchik, and when you do, please look me up. You and I will go on a walk together, while we still can.