Antonia Malchik is the author of A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time.
I often ask people the following question, just to see if they can answer it: If you wanted to, could you step out the door of your home and walk where you needed to go? Most people can’t answer with an immediate “yes” or “no.” They have to think about it, which is why I ask the question. Can they? Can I? Most of us aren’t sure.
Considering the entire expanse of human history, when walking was how the bulk of people got anywhere, the fact that we’re not sure is disturbing. North America in particular has been so entirely restructured around cars that many of even the most able-bodied people have forgotten what it’s like to get places without one.
Over and over we’re exhorted to walk at least thirty minutes a day. It’s good for our hearts, our lungs, our children’s brain development and our creativity. But the barriers to walking are immense. Communities have suffered decades of disinvestment in basic walking and public transportation infrastructure. As is too often the case, this is more evident the more poor a neighbourhood is, but we seem so devoted to cars that it’s true even in better-off areas.
Too many of us lack the most basic foundation of a walkable life – wide, well-kept, wheelchair-friendly sidewalks – along with the necessities to make walking a pleasure rather than a burden. Our sidewalks are too skinny, exposed, unprotected from busy roadways, in disrepair, underserved by crosswalks and pedestrian rights-of-way, or simply nonexistent.
Can you walk to your job, the store, a library, a school – or get there with a combination of walking and public transportation? If your answer is “yes,” then you’ve become one of the privileged few.
Walkable communities have been shown to increase civic engagement and decrease crime, as well as increase spending in businesses people can walk to (people who walk to stores tend to visit more of them, and to linger longer and spend more money). Jarrett Walker, one of the most prominent voices in the world of public transportation planning, even envisions a community served by walking and public transportation as kinder. It’s much harder to turn someone into an “other” when you pass them on the sidewalk every day; likewise, it’s harder to ignore your commonalities when you share the same bus or subway car, smile at strangers’ children or help an unsteady person to a seat.
We’re often fed the line that we love our cars too much to let them go. Not only does this attitude play into denial of climate change, air pollution, and the never-ending spread of freeways and suburbs across our landscapes, it also hides the fact that a car-centric culture has been deliberately sold to us by automobile manufacturers and oil companies for more than half a century. “We” didn’t ask for this world. It was pressed upon us through highway-building, single-family homes built in increasingly car-dependent suburbs because of cheap land availability, a barrage of advertising (in which traffic never seems to be an issue) and persistent, directed starvation of public transportation networks.
The result has been fractured communities, lower qualities of life as well as failing health outcomes, and a mentality telling us that “to go” somewhere involves not stepping out your door and meeting the world face to face, but manoeuvering five thousand pounds of pollution-spewing metal and plastic, preferably directly from your door to as close as you can possibly get to the door of where you want to be.
But this reality is not one we’re powerless to change. We can, at least, make an effort to walk more, especially those of us who are lucky enough to live or work in walkable areas. A commitment to walking everywhere possible just one day a week can open your eyes and your body both to what we’ve lost and what we have to gain.
Think of this intention as akin to the Meatless Mondays movement that took off years ago – a Walking Wednesday, say. As with changing our diets, the true goal is awareness of what’s possible and how it feels to live differently.
When committing to this change, it’s also crucial to be conscious of the difference in access between those who have privilege and those who don’t. If you do, if you can walk where you need and want to go, why not make an effort every six months to spend a day walking in places where it’s difficult or proscribed, the walking equivalent of a food desert? A walkable world means walkability for everyone; educate yourself on what that means in areas that politicians, policies and funding neglect.
If we are to have a hope of building and restoring healthy communities that serve people rather than cars, much less of averting the worst effects of climate change, we have to devote ourselves to building a walkable world, and we have to start now. Doing so will require funding for public transportation, re-engineering roads to put the pedestrian first, better enforcement of stricter speed limits, money for street trees and sidewalk updates, and a focus on building a society where having a car is no longer necessary.
If you can’t walk where you need to go, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself why, and to do something about it.