ellen vanderslice.
radical pedestrian. loves to walk.


Why don't we walk more?

Walking is unique to the human species and fundamental to its evolution and competitive advantage. Walking allowed the development of the versatile hands, and the hands in turn fostered large brains, the use of tools, self-conscious thought and language. Once on our feet, human kind spread to most of the habitable parts of the planet by walking there.

Yet after some four million years as a superbly successful adaptive strategy, walking has, within a single century, become endangered. It has been displaced by an interrelated system of cars, roads and the sprawling urban form that they require for their deployment.

Walking is magic. Walking on two legs -- without a tail for balance -- is something that only humans do, and it's a bit of a miracle. In Wanderlust: the History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit rhapsodizes, "The animal kingdom has nothing else like this column of flesh and bone always in danger of toppling, this proud unsteady tower.." Sussman and Goode in The Magic of Walking describe it in terms of its mechanics: "Walking is nothing more than a series of stumbles caught in the nick of time, a continuous, rhythmic loss and recovery of balance."

That continuous rhythm of walking uses nearly every muscle in our bodies. It makes us breathe deeply, in time. And it makes our brains work in a way that no other activity can match. Walking is good for your mental health, not just your physical well being.

Walking grounds us. To walk in a place over time is to know it intimately. We need some connection to nature, we need the occasional long view and the element of charm. All this is ours, for free, when we walk. Travelling by car, or by train, or by plane, we are disembodied. The journey is like a stainless steel tube and we are a projectile that enters at one end and is discharged at the other. Walking, we find the world presents itself at the rate our brains evolved to decode.

People tell me they don't have time to walk, but paradoxically, taking time to walk puts more time in your day. Our brains were made to work at four miles an hour. Twenty minutes of steady, brisk walking is enough to solve all but the thorniest problem. Try it! Tell me if I'm wrong. (Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes.)

So we don't walk, so what? Well, walking is not the only thing to be lost as our streets have become motorways. As Donald Appleyard so eloquently showed in 1981, there is a direct correlation between heavy traffic volumes and diminished neighborliness. Automobile travel per person continues to rise each year, severely degrading our quality of life while putting intolerable stresses on the environment.

"Notoriously, Americans tend to extremes," wrote Joseph Wood Krutch in 1964. "They have been more exuberantly committed than any other people to whatever is thought of as modern -- whether it be gadgets, clothes, or even social manners. And walking tended to be more completely outmoded here than anywhere else."

In 2001, what has changed? Only that we have paved over a lot more of the planet, and walking, in some places, is impossible.

We call ourselves the richest nation on earth, and we live lives of utter aesthetic and spiritual poverty. Americans retain a vestige of the agrarian ideals of our past in the form of a strange ambivalence toward cities. The automobile city of the twentieth century is really an anti-city of strictly segregated uses connected by the road/car complex. Tucked away on dead-end streets are arrays of characterless homes, each a surrogate on its tiny lot for what James Howard Kunstler calls the "homestead in the natural landscape." On the artery is the suburban shopping mall, or in more recent years, the "big box" store, where you drive and park to walk a half-mile through the parking lot and then another half-mile, in a stupor, along brightly lit aisles filled with incredible quantities of tacky stuff that is not what you're looking for.

The forces that produce the soulless suburban form are well entrenched. The good news is that the paradigm has shifted on many fronts. Whether it's called smart growth or pedestrian oriented development or new urbanism, there is a movement afoot. Even the realty industry is beginning to understand that there is a latent demand for innovative 'products' that are not in the standard development menu. Banks are finding ways to finance mixed-use developments that, a decade ago, could not be built for want of capital.

There has been a change, too, in the kinds of transportation projects that are funded. The passage of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act in 1991 and subsequent reauthorization has had a slow but measurable impact on the patterns of federal transportation spending.

Downtowns are enjoying a new renaissance. Cities that prudently took steps to reverse the decline of their inner core areas in past decades have seen it pay off in development and economic success. New compact neighborhoods, urbane and walkable, are giving people the choice to live "car-light "or "car-free," as Katie Alvord describes in her book Divorce Your Car.

As Peter Calthorpe notes in The Next American Metropolis, at the core of the alternative to sprawl is the pedestrian. "Pedestrians are the catalyst which makes the essential qualities of communities meaningful. They create the place and the time for casual encounters Without the pedestrian, a community's common ground -- its parks, sidewalks, squares, and plazas -- become useless obstructions to the car."


Sprawl Makes Us Fat


Never be caught in shoes
you can't walk in...



Pedestrian activism is better when you organize and do it together. Over the years, I've had the good fortune to fall in with terrific people who share this peculiar interest in walking and pedestrian rights. I have learned much from them. There is a vibrant, growing network of folks across the country who are all working to make our communities better places to live and to walk. You can read more about that work at http://americawalks.org

Substance last updated 03/17/21. Links updated 9/17/06. Problems? info@ellenvanderslice.com