The End of Walking in America

June 25, 2016

In 2011, Raquel Nelson was convicted of vehicular homicide following the death of her four-year-old son. Nelson, it’s crucial to note, was not driving. She didn’t even own a car.

She and her three children were crossing a busy four-lane road from a bus stop to their apartment building in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. She’d stopped on the median halfway across when her son let go of her hand and stepped into the second half of the road. Nelson tried to catch him but wasn’t fast enough; she and her two-year-old daughter were also injured.

The driver admitted to having alcohol and painkillers in his system (and to being legally blind in one eye) and pleaded guilty to the charge of hit-and-run. He served six months in prison. For the crime of walking three tired, hungry children home in the most efficient way possible, Nelson faced more jail time than the man who had killed her son.

I am writing from a position of privilege. Not white or middle-class privilege – although I am both of those things and those facts play a role in my privilege – but rather, the privilege Americans don’t realise they’ve lost in a nearly Orwellian fashion: I can open the door of my home, take my kids by their hands, and meet almost any need by lifting my feet and moving forward.

Food, schools, social centres, books, playgrounds, even doctors and dentists and ice cream – nearly everything our family uses daily is within about a mile’s walk of home and well-served by wide, uncrowded sidewalks.

This is the kind of privilege that Raquel Nelson, and millions like her, might never experience. I’ve walked her steps, dealing with cranky children after a long day, worn out, longing for sleep, weighed down with groceries, and then suddenly reaching out with a pounding heart as my littlest one ran into a busy street. Reading her story, I find the inhumanity of Nelson’s situation staggering.

There’s the injustice of her conviction, but beyond that is this: she was walking. There is nothing more human, more natural, more fundamental to our freedom, than transporting ourselves by foot. Nothing more purely instinctive than a child answering the desire of feet, legs, spine, and head, to dart forward in the direction his brain urges him to go.

Human beings evolved to move at a pace of three miles an hour, breathing easily, hands free, seeking food and shade. We tread without thinking, toes pushing off from the soil, cheeks lifted to catch the air, dirt caking in our nostrils. Walking is the first legacy of our post-ape genes, the trait that makes us most human: H. sapiens came only after H. erectus. We walked, and began our intellectual toddle toward the Anthropocene.

Our most basic access to health comes from walking. Walking for just 30 minutes five days a week has been shown to have a significant impact on everything from obesity to depression and colon cancer. A normal day’s errands would easily take more than 30 minutes on foot. When we get around by driving instead we’re liable to become overweight, insular, edgy.

In his book The Story of the Human Body, the evolutionary biologist Daniel E Lieberman dissects the widespread chronic health problems that he thinks are linked to sitting for long periods, including in cars: muscle atrophy, lower-back pain, cardiovascular disease, diabetes. ‘We are inadequately adapted to being too physically idle, too well fed, too comfortable,’ he says.

But exercise is perhaps the narrowest of considerations. Walking is a complex interconnection of cognitive processes and sensory inputs. The transfer of information from foot to brain, between the inner ear and visual reception, is mind-bogglingly difficult to calculate.

Only the most recent neuroscience research is beginning to grasp the bidirectional link between cognitive and motor functions, and the role cardiovascular health plays in our mental wellbeing. Yet walking as a way of life is more out of reach than ever, especially for those in poorer neighbourhoods.

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.

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