The ability—and perhaps, to some extent, the desire—to walk is largely disappearing from America, says Antonia Malchik. In an Aeon Magazine piece, she considers the ways we’ve undermined walking through modern urban planning, and through our obsession with cars:
For decades, Americans have been losing their ability, even their right, to walk. There are places in the United States – New York City, for example – where people walk as a matter of habit and lifestyle, commuting in ways familiar to residents of London or Paris. But there are vast blankets and folds of the country where the ability to walk – to open a door and step outside and go somewhere or nowhere without getting behind the wheel of a car – is a struggle, a fight. A risk.
In 2013 more than 4,700 pedestrians were killed, and an estimated 66,000 injured, in what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calls ‘traffic crashes’. That’s a bite-sized phrase for what is, essentially, people in cars killing and injuring people on foot.
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.
It is true that if you’re watching the Super Bowl, say, it’s the car commercials that are stuffed with patriotism and references to good ole “Murica.” On a larger scale, the car (regardless of its size or make) seems to reference the ideals of individualism, autonomy, and privacy that many Americans hold dear. It’s a piece of privately-owned property that you can bring with you, wherever you go.
In a sense, Malchik’s piece makes me wonder whether the decline in home and/or property ownership has only made the car more important to Americans: because at least traditionally, it’s the home that we would associate with these feelings of pride and autonomy. But fewer Americans own property—and of those who do, fewer regard such ownership with the same sort of long-term allegiance. Owning a home is often a commercial endeavor, a rung on the ladder to bigger dreams and more square footage elsewhere. Thus, cars often help us express our sense of autonomy and personality in a way home ownership may have in the past.
Yet in the decline of walking—and correspondingly, in the decline of walkability—there are certain elements of community and culture that we may lose. Because despite its inefficiency or tediousness, walking provides several goods that the car cannot.
First, walking helps to cultivate community. Driving is an isolated mode of travel: it separates us physically from those around us, be they drivers, walkers, or bikers. Driving also promotes a desire for speed and efficiency: it spurs us to get somewhere fast, rather than urging us to enjoy the journey. When we drive, we usually have the end destination fixed in our minds. When we walk, we have time to stop, linger, and notice—perhaps even to say hello to passersby. Walking encourages us to take part in the fabric of the place we inhabit: it forces us to pay attention, and to acknowledge the others surrounding us. We have to share the sidewalk. We have to stop for cars or bikers, for strollers and dog walkers. It forces attention, and correspondingly, can foster relationships.
Second, walking provides space for the carless. There are many who either cannot afford an automobile, or who are more comfortable walking. For some, it may be a matter of principle: they believe biking and walking, taking public transportation when necessary, are healthier for them and better overall for the environment. For others, driving may be impossible due to health or financial reasons. I know a woman with brain cancer who is not allowed to drive—but she’ll often still try to walk to church or the grocery store when she cannot get a ride. Having safe sidewalks and intersections provides her an essential means of transportation.
Such services not only offer space for the carless—they also foster a safer environment overall. A society with walkers is a slower-paced society. Some view this as a bad thing—they prefer being able to get from point A to point B with the greatest amount of speed possible. But speed and efficiency often curb community closeness—and they can be lethal for the carless, who are left with no choice but to cross busy intersections or navigate narrow sidewalks alongside highways. Providing space for walkers encourages drivers to slow down and pay attention. It forces them to be present, and conscientious, of those around them.
Correspondingly, walking should teach mindfulness to pedestrians, in how and where they walk. It should force them to pay attention to their environment and teach them to be prudent. (Though the walker’s prudent decisions are often impeded or negated by the space they are given, and/or by drivers’ carelessness. The burden of responsibility is on the driver—owner as they are of the faster, heavier, more isolated vehicle—to be aware of their surroundings.) Thus we see that walking and walkability can teach prudence and responsibility, to both drivers and walkers. It encourages both to be mindful of the other, and fosters an environment in which speed is secondary to safety, efficiency to wellbeing.
Finally, walking is important because it breaks down insular barriers that keep us from knowing and appreciating our place, our moment. Matthew Crawford spends a lot of time talking about this in his recent book, The World Beyond Your Head:
… The design of automobiles has tended toward insulation, offering an ever less involving driving experience. The animating idea seems to be that the driver should be a disembodied observer, moving through a world of objects that present themselves as though on a screen. … The wealth of information presented by an older, harder-edged, and lighter car elicits involvement; you have the palpable sense that it is your ass that is going sixty miles an hour. Such existential involvement demands and energizes attention. This is why driving a light, primitive sports car is so exhilarating.
… Roads are tacitly pedagogical, as are cars. They can foster circumspection—literally, looking around for others and regarding oneself as an object for others in turn—or a collection of atomized me-worlds. In the latter case, we tend not to encounter others unless we literally collide with them.
The more we insulate ourselves from those around us, the less safety and community we are able to enjoy. Crawford points out that cars weren’t always this way—but it is largely what they have become, through modern automobile engineering. The question, thus, is whether we should hold up driving as an emblem of American individuality and expression, or whether we should, cognizant of cars’ limits and dangers, also make room in our society—and on our roads—for the walker, who also embodies important American ideals: those of neighborliness, self-sufficiency, and responsibility (to name a few).
Gracy Olmstead is an associate editor of The American Conservative.