Walking and the Commons

When someone asked me many months ago what my next big project would be and I talked about the commons, private property, and ownership, they asked me why I would go write about something so completely unrelated when my whole thing, for many years now, has been walking.

This question has come up more than once, and relates to what people are possibly thinking when they say that my book wasn’t at all what they expected. Perhaps it’s the kinds of readers who are attracted to walking as a subject, but I’ve found that any book about walking tends to set an expectation of someone like Rebecca Solnit writing about someone like Henry David Thoreau.

One of the reasons I wanted to write a book about walking instead of stopping at a couple of longform essays about it was precisely because of that expectation. Everywhere I turned, with the exception of Tom Vanderbilt’s four-part 2012 series for Slate that started with “The Crisis in American Walking,” walking was presented as an intellectual and philosophical subject that only intellectuals and philosophers practiced. It’s as if only minds are allowed to walk, not bodies and especially not the bodies of everyday people.

My approach to walking is related to my advocacy for embodied learning: we are real, physical beings who evolved on a real, physical planet. We understand this planet, ourselves, and one another through our physical relationships. Walking is one of the most fundamental of those relationships.

Which goes back to the commons. This planet is everyone’s birthright, not to abuse or exploit or use up, but to care for and be cared by and most definitely to wander. Yet in a car-centric culture, not to mention the barriers created by the fiction of nation-states and borders, that right is taken away. Mass amounts of space in towns and cities is given to cars, not people; in many places there are vast miles with no sidewalks.

The situation has only gotten worse over the last decade or so. In her recently published book Right of Way, former editor of Streetsblog USA Angie Schmitt details the mid-2000s loss of even meager national funding for biking and pedestrian infrastructure in favor of more highway funding. If you’ve ever tried to advocate for more walker-friendly infrastructure in your town or state, this excellent article from Vice explains how state-level Departments of Transportation are locked into an algorithm that is only able to consider improvements or funding through the lens of legally-mandated Travel Demand Modeling. Improving traffic flow, not creating a world that prioritizes health and humanity, is where your tax dollars get to work.

Any infrastructure we invest public funds in or permit private developers to build should be designed with the needs and interests of human (and the rest of life’s) bodies, minds, and psyches first, and machines last. The fact that we are, for all intents and purposes, required to devote a significant percentage of our incomes to finance at least one car so we can get to our jobs is a failing of public policy, not a reflection of societal values.

If we are to exercise the right to walk, we need a healthy and accessible commons. Clean air and water, healthy soil, fewer roads and machine noise (car or otherwise), more trees. Whether we can walk in the future depends on whether it’s healthy and safe to do so and whether there’s anywhere to go in the first place.

What stands in the way of your walking, or in the way of others in your community? Finding out how to remove those barriers, how to create a human-friendly commons, is not a bad thing to devote one’s energy to. There is so much in our world that we don’t have control over, so many issues of equity and justice. This is one that affects every community in unique ways and requires responses unique to each of those communities. It starts with understanding that we all have a right to the world.