Something like six million years ago, early humans began to walk on two legs. Around two million years ago, they became fully bipedal, with long thigh bones that allowed them to take big strides and cover great distances. Anthropologists believe this may have helped them thrive in the broad grasslands of East Africa. With their hands now free, they could pick fruit and carry food, tools or infants.
Ever since, we have been a walking species. To walk is to be human. Yet over the past few generations, many of us have lost the habit. First the horse, then the horse and carriage and finally the motor vehicle gave us a way to get around without the bother of putting one foot in front of the other.
The cult of the car made walking look almost quaint. In rich countries, at least, walking was for suckers. Four wheels good, two legs bad. Cities built to ease the flow of traffic became hostile environments for pedestrians. Today, those who own cars often make even short trips by automobile. In his 2015 book, Born to Walk: The Transformative Power of a Pedestrian Act, Dan Rubinstein writes that 40 years ago, two-thirds of North American children got to school on foot or by bicycle. Today, just one third do.
Could the COVID-19 disaster reverse this dismal trend? Look out the window these days and it certainly seems possible. Everyone is walking. Cooped-up, stir-crazy home-office workers are walking for exercise. Dog owners are walking the pandemic puppy. Lovers are date-walking. Friends are walking in place of Zooming. Families that used to gather around a screen can be seen chatting and kibitzing as they wander. Even in the depths of winter, the parks have been full of walkers.
It is one of the most heartening changes to come out of the global crisis. Let’s hope it’s a lasting one. The benefits of walking are legion. As Mr. Rubinstein notes, the “measured exertion” of a good walk helps prevent obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. It builds bone and muscle and mass. It improves your sense of balance and so cuts down on falls. “I have two doctors, my left leg and my right,” the British historian George Trevelyan said.
Walking clears the head, too. “I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it,” said Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher. You can’t doom scroll while walking. The wisest bosses are positively ordering their charges to take a walk. It makes them happier and more productive.
Wise governments are doing everything they can to get people moving. Toronto closed a waterfront highway to cars last summer and let pedestrians and cyclists take over. They came in throngs. Now it is drawing up creative plans to make two of its most important streets, University and Yonge, friendlier to walkers. It is also bringing in lower speed limits, more crossings and other measures designed to reduce the shocking number of pedestrians who are struck down and killed or injured every year by speeding cars.
The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, is pushing ahead with a $400-million “re-enchanting” of one of the world’s most famous avenues, the Champs-Élysées. The space for cars is to be cut in half. Pedestrians will stroll down a street, shaded by trees and flanked by gardens. Edinburgh wants to ban cars from stately George Street altogether, freeing up space for strolling and biking.
Urban culture is changing. Many city dwellers, especially those who live in the core, are abandoning or parking their cars and walking to work (when permitted). Afterward they walk to the dog park or the bar. Outlying cities, such as Mississauga and Brampton on Toronto’s flank, are rebuilding their centres to make them more “walkable,” now considered the great virtue of well-planned urban areas.
The rage to ramble that has emerged during the pandemic should accelerate the shift. A health crisis is forcing us to rediscover one of the most basic and most healthful of human activities. We are learning to walk again.