I wish all of the inhabitable world and all its streets were safely and comfortably navigable on foot. Even in the close-in suburb of New York City where I live, this is far from the case. It is as car-centric as American cities come. Yet I defiantly take to the streets in nothing but my old worn sneakers most of the time. I ride a bike and take the train to work/ school as well, but the vast majority of my movement around the world occurs on foot for me, and it occurs often, year round and with pleasure.
Of course around here I am a highly visible oddball for it, the only chronic African pedestrian in this Asian-American city without enough sidewalks for one man, let alone the 100,000 that live in this town. I know that on many of the routes I take, on minor sidewalk-less arterials paved too narrowly for the comfort of most through the woods and under railroads, most people would not choose to walk. It takes straight boldness to do it, since I don’t think I’m more courageous than anyone. But boldness should not be the prerequisite for living as if one’s community were built to human scale. In fact, take away the unfriendly roads and my town would appear to function at human scale – train station with express service to Manhattan, numerous produce stores, grocers, a major shopping mall, schools and more are all within 1-3 miles of my crib. If the streets were “complete streets” (sidewalks, crosswalks, traffic calming engineering, bike infrastructure and so on), it wouldn’t be only the bold that walked them regularly.
Seasons don’t change this condition of the streets and the local civilization’s transit patterns. To the die-hard pedestrian who lives standing up on his or her feet no matter what, human beings are hard to find in the streets of my town come summer or winter alike, but cars are always everywhere. I sometimes forget that human beings are even in those cars, in part because they are so rudely and aggressively operated. My conviction is that even the streets of my car-centric town are meant to move humans, whether they be on foot, on bicycles, in cars or buses. This means I don’t blink when the drivers honk at me for walking on the side of the road. At choke points where cars, cyclists and pedestrians have to share a narrow lane under a bridge, I don’t run when the motorists honk or speed by dangerously. I make them slow down like they’re supposed to. I don’t run in crosswalks either. It’s the law in New Jersey to stop “and stay stopped” as a motorist seeing pedestrians crossing streets. In fact I usually slow down to make sure the motorist knows he or she can’t intimidate me. I am always engaged in this sort of spiritual combat, testing the wills of impatient motorists and quietly thanking the ones that still have a sense of decency and humanity.
I am obviously of the opinion that automobile reliance is rather dehumanizing, both to the motorist who fails to realize that he or she is at some point also a pedestrian, and to the pedestrian who is often forced to move with trepidation and paranoia. But I do challenge myself to acknowledge and remember the humanity of drivers. It is not easy. I only wish that more motorists remembered that pedestrians are dignified humans with their own right to the safety and their few feet of breathing room on the road. We’re all human beings here.
Perhaps, until “complete streets” are unveiled everywhere, driver’s ed lessons should stress slowness. Slowness must become a virtue for prospective motorists, and motorists must be drilled and drilled with the notion that the road is for all human beings. It is not only for those operating the heavy, speeding, polluting and overly-deployed, overly-relied upon heavy machinery embodied in automobiles.
People would do well to rely more on their own bodies for transportation, simply because it’s natural. Am I living more like an ancient paleo-human just because I do this in this car-centric North-American wasteland? To admit as much would be amazingly silly – I’m just an ordinary man and far from a primitivist. But it seems like radicalism to be the hardcore pedestrian that I am. I embrace the radicalism – people always tell me they saw me walking here or there around town. But it shouldn’t be just the special eccentric character that some people take me for who walks a lot. And it shouldn’t require an exercise in boldness or radicalism to be hyper-mobile on foot.
My train station is a mere mile away from my home – 15 minutes on foot at a healthy pace. I would never think of doing anything but walking or biking there, and I’ve had that mindset as long as I’ve lived around here. But to many folks around here, including folks I live with, that’s an unwalkable distance. That’s partly a result of the unpleasantness of sidewalk-less roads and highways one might take to get there from here (unless one knows the shortcuts through the woods and neighborhoods), but I think the conceptualization of acceptable walkable distances is pretty warped out here. In high school I ditched the school-bus so I could walk the two+ miles to get there – loved every minute of it. My concepts were already broad enough to embrace walking around several miles every day even back then. If I could have that mindset as a young teenager, it can’t be impossible for others. I think that the culture at large would do well to begin to condition itself that it’s okay to walk a mile or two and it is a healthy and pleasurable discipline to give oneself the extra time to do it.
Walking is among the most natural expressions of our humanity. Bipedal creatures like us were literally born to walk upright. When humans spread across the continents from Africa, much of it was done walking. Why should walking be seen as an abnormal, radical or undesirable behavior? I live to walk. For those of us born with two good working legs, walking is our birthright, our native activity. It’s unfortunate that I am writing today to call upon the culture to re-remember this essential truth and normalize walking.
I hope Manhattanites and Newarkers feel me too. You have side-walks and hella foot traffic compared to where I dwell, but you also have hella shit-heads and car-centric road design and behavior. It sucks almost as bad sometimes when I’m over there, but at least there’s a critical mass of people moving at human scale over there too.
I’m not saying all of society should completely slow down, that all of the uses of automobiles are illegitimate, or that pedestrians should have free rein on the New Jersey Turnpike. But I do adamantly advocate for the complete streets and human-scale infrastructure necessary for more people to come out and feel safe to walk. I also demand a serious moderation and mellowing of the culture surrounding the automobile, along with a rethinking of how motorist attitudes are conditioned for speed, selfishness and callousness.
Too many motorists are engaging in straight-up asshole behavior out there. Your antics will never stop me from walking these streets. I will not apologize if my bipedal presence on the streets, my actualization of our common native activity, offends you and forces you to slow down. Homie, do slow the fuck down! The streets are for human beings! Remember, you are one of them and so am I!
Fellow humans, resume walking as your natural-born tendency. The lead foot is best used to pound pavement, not burn rubber and gasoline.