Best Foot Forward: Are We Losing The Art Of Walking?

MikeachimTravel6 Comments

Fevered Mutterings image: Northumberland - Mike Sowden

On walking, and why we aren’t.

An act dwelling in the margins, an almost hidden narrative running beneath the main vehicular text. Indeed, the semantics of the term pedestrian would be a mere curiosity, but for one fact: America is a country that has forgotten how to walk.

If you didn’t catch Tom Vanderbilt’s terrific 4-part series at Slate on “America’s Pedestrian Problem” (quoted above), I urge you to do so. Thanks to being 6 months behind with my Evernote queue (I grab web articles in Chrome via EverRead and send them to my phone) I’ve only just caught up with them…and curiously, it’s happened at exactly the right time.

It’s not just America, Mr Vanderbilt.

Wherever I am, I often tell people I’d rather walk. They tell me where the buses are, they offer me a lift in their car, and I say, “I like walking. It’s fun!” This is usually followed by an awkward silence, as if I’ve just announced I plan to join Starfleet or the Avengers, or that I bought this album and really enjoyed it.

In short, walking is increasing seen as either ill-informed (“why? There’s a bus!”) or eccentric. The practical value of having a car – keeping us warm, carrying our shopping and so on – has erased from our heads the thought that in some situations, walking might be the most meaningful way to get around.

Many of the most engrossing travel experiences I’ve enjoyed were on foot. Walking across the North York Moors, for example. Walking out of Kirkwall, Orkney, to sleep rough in a field. Walking right across Berlin early in the morning. Crunching my way over frosted, iron-hard ground along Hadrian’s Wall on the way to Twice Brewed. Walking along the Holderness coast as, overhead, the Flamborough lighthouse threw its beam a quarter of the width of England.

And this has been nagging at me for over a year.

I don’t drive. I enjoy cycling, I adore train travel – but walking is my most comfortable state of motion. It appeals to my desire to experience as much of the world as I can firsthand, and to really feel I’ve earned my destinations. It’s better for the knees than running, and it’s a steady cardiovascular workout that doesn’t leave you a sweaty, beetroot-coloured creature that lays in front of the TV for hours after you get back home. Yes, it’s slow. There are few slower journeys you can take (apart from my long-treasured dream of crossing Britain on a Space Hopper). But it’s a journey you take at your own pace — literally, at your own pace — and you have complete freedom to get off the road and go exploring, or wind your way around obstacles, in the same way a bicycle partly allows and a car never does.

In 2013, I’m returning to Hadrian’s Wall with the intention of walking the full 73 miles of it. That’s a good start. But that’s not enough. I want to MacFarlane my way around Britain’s most ancient tracks, or Thubron my way right round Cyprus. These are the adventures that really call to me . . .

. . . and so I’m thinking, hard.

Bonus: did you know there are scientists who can determine where you live from your walking speed?

Further Reading:What Makes A Great City: A General Theory Of Walkability” – Maria Popova, Brain Pickings.
Photo: Mike Sowden.
  • Great links – thanks. England seems ideally suited for walking – small, green, littered with accommodation and unutterably scenic. Can’t wait to get back there.

  • I recently heard a radio article purporting the benefits of walking outside as opposed to pounding the treadmill in a gym. Better both for body and mind. Wonderful to live in a part of the country where the walking is so wonderful.

    In a recent trip to Bhutan, I learned that the King of Bhutan thought that his people were losing the ‘Art of Walking’ and so has now banned all use of cars on a Tuesday, (apart from those transporting tourists). After our driver nearly knocked a cyclist over, he proceeded to say quite casually that it was the King…out on his bike, as it was a Tuesday! May be Cammeron should consider it?

  • I met a Dutch guy in the beginning of this year who was planning at that time a 14 day walking-and-camping travel trip in Serbia, to be done in July-August. I didn’t keep in touch with him, but I heard that he did it. Even though I enjoy walking, to travel for two weeks by foot doesn’t really tempt me :)

  • I LOVE walking and totally agree that too many people avoid it at all costs. I lived in NYC for the past year and the last week I lived there, decided to walk the length of it. I’ve never loved that city more than seeing the transition from neighborhoods, all the way from Washington Heights to Battery Park. Definitely recommend it for anyone with a looong free day in NYC and comfy shoes!

  • jon

    Walking! Right on, man. I love to walk, and not just because I fear the bus (what if at my stop I push the doors and they don’t open and the bus continues along for miles and miles and all the other passengers laugh and point and mock me?)

    I’m lucky that walking is pretty easy in Chicago, and kinda happy that not many people do it because it drives me crazy when someone comes out of a store as I’m walking by and then walks at the exact same pace as me. I get all, “I was walking here first. It’s YOUR responsibility to slow down or speed up.”

  • I love walking. I walk every where I can and when living abroad I only use public transportation and my feet. It truly is a great way to really get to know an area- it is much easier said than done in the US though (minus the downtown areas of the big cities)- too many places are not set up for walking. Or rather not set up for walking with a final destination in mind- we can walk around neighborhoods, or around the block, but rarely is it possible to get somewhere that is more than 1 mile.
    A great article! Thanks for writing it :c)