This is nothing short of a walking manifesto. So far, Slate’s Tom Vanderbilt has posted just two parts of his four-part series on why we don’t walk more — the first installment is headlined “The Crisis In American Walking” — and already it’s enough to make me jump from my chair, tie up my sneakers and hit the pavement. I’ll share the health angle below, but the series focuses on so much more, from history to urban planning to what can be done.
America is a country that has forgotten how to walk. Witness, for example, the existence of “Everybody Walk!,” the “Campaign to Get America Walking” (one of a number of such initiatives). While its aims are entirely legitimate, its motives no doubt earnest, the idea that that we, this species that first hoisted itself into the world of bipedalism nearly 4 million years ago—for reasons that are still debated—should now need “walking tips,” have to make “walking plans” or use a “mobile app” to “discover” walking trails near us or build our “walking histories,” strikes me as a world-historical tragedy.
For walking is the ultimate “mobile app.” Here are just some of the benefits, physical, cognitive and otherwise, that it bestows: Walking six miles a week was associated with a lower risk of Alzheimer’s (and I’m not just talking about walking in the “Walk to End Alzheimers”); walking can help improve your child’s academic performance; make you smarter; reduce depression;lower blood pressure; even raise one’s self-esteem.” And, most important, though perhaps least appreciated in the modern age, walking is the only travel mode that gets you from Point A to Point B on your own steam, with no additional equipment or fuel required, from the wobbly threshold of toddlerhood to the wobbly cusp of senility.
Despite these upsides, in an America enraptured by the cultural prosthesis that is the automobile, walking has become a lost mode, perceived as not a legitimate way to travel but a necessary adjunct to one’s car journey, a hobby, or something that people without cars—those pitiable “vulnerable road users,” as they are called with charitable condescension—do. To decry these facts—to examine, as I will in this series, how Americans might start walking more again— may seem like a hopelessly retrograde, romantic exercise: nostalgia for Thoreau’s woodland ambles. But the need is urgent. The decline of walking has become a full-blown public health nightmare.
On the excellent environmental news site Grist, reporter Sarah Laskow praises the series and notes that according to the Slate piece, “The very word pedestrian is an insult to people who aren’t driving — the Greek word it derives from means ‘prosaic, plain, commonplace, uninspired.’ She opines:
Screw that. One of the most inspired aspects of walking is that it opens up your world to the commonplace and to inspiration — walking gives you time to think, notice your surroundings, and make connections to the world. Cars just get you where you’re going.