The Last Walk

Are cars turning human beings into quadrupeds? Or is there room for walking after all?

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Even the signs aren't sure.
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Here’s a question: Are we evolving to become quadrupedal, needing four limbs to get around as we once did on the African savanna?

After all, we now need two limbs to control foot pedals, and two to aim a wheel in the direction we’re headed. (Well, at least one to aim, one to text while driving). For nearly five million years we were fine getting around with two feet when we had to cover a distance. Then, in the last century, we’ve more or less abandoned our feet to become car monkeys.

OK, yes, it’s a facetious question. Of course natural selection isn’t likely to favor paunchy men with short arms held permanently at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions. This will never be attractive to highly fertile women.

Yet, I wonder what our cultural evolution away from the long walk means. We still get around on two feet, at least in intervals — from the cubicle to the rest room, from the parking lot to the big box store. Yet the long, purposeful walk seems to have fallen into severe disfavor. In the typical city, according to one study I came across, about forty percent of all walking episodes among adults consists of twelve steps or fewer. As I pointed out in my first Walking Tour column, we now essentially tweet with our feet, executing the equivalent of a series of 140-character walks. Long-form walking has disappeared.

I explore this trend at (perhaps obsessive) length in a new book, which came out last week. It’s called The Last Great Walk: The True Story of a 1909 Walk from New York to San Francisco, and Why it Matters Today. It’s constructed around a journey taken by a man named Edward Payson Weston, who walked from Atlantic to Pacific at age 70, averaging around 40 miles per day. (Pause to think about that.)

Accounts of his walk — which was widely lauded and his route clotted with spectators when he went by — make this feel a bit like a John Henry tale, a story of noble but futile exercise to prove that the car was a superfluous interloper, and that real Americans got about with heel and toe. (“Walking is far more healthful than riding,” Weston said in 1907. “We are becoming too much of a sit-down animal. We sit down when we are at work and when we are going from one place to another even if it is only for a short distance”.)

Weston wasn’t the only one agitating for long walks at the time. A 1909 story in the Dietary and Hygienic Review (yes, an actual journal) said that “to leave town but for a day or a Saturday afternoon to do a week’s end turn of ten miles, is to lay in a stock of health that will make the brain clear, the digestion good, the temper superb for the six other days.”

Yet the car won, and we as a culture have let the long walk go extinct. It’s no longer part of our physical vocabulary. The idea of walking four or five miles instead of driving seems seems more something you’d do in protest or for performance art than a normal part of one’s day. “Walking is what you do when you park your car,” says Tom Vanderbilt, historian of driving and traffic. As transportation, walking has becoming an endangered form.

Today, the long walk surfaces in our awareness chiefly when we’re focussed on other people’s health rather than our own — not a weekend passes without a large-scale march of earnest people in matching tee-shirts to raise money for research into cancer, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or the like. The fact that long walks are in part a way to lessen the risks of all these diseases (and many other chronic illness) is something that somehow escapes us. Walking has been edited out of the national conversation, and we’re starting to see the consequences in our physical and mental health, as well as in the erosion of our manmade landscape to favor cars, which in turn further pushes walking out of mind.

What I found in working on the book wasn’t wholly bad news. Indeed, after a century-long hiatus, we now are seeing a slow return to our feet. Millenials as a whole would rather not drive, according to many surveys. They like to live in more densely settled cities and towns where they can walk. The humble pedometer of yore has spawned the Fitbit, and now the Apple Watch, to track how many steps we take and encourage us to take more. And real estate people understand that a neighborhood’s walkability has a positive correlation with home values. After several generations of smart money heading to the far-flung suburbs, it’s now gradually shifting to the cities. A good sidewalk that leads to good shops and entertainment is the new two-car garage. Curb appeal is changing its meaning.

The most interesting shift of the past couple of decades seems to be the in perception of the long walk. It’s been a countercultural aberration for several generations — remember the jokes about being picked up by the cops for walking in Los Angeles? — but seems to be tacking back toward the mainstream. And whereas creating a world safe for the car was once a given, the automobile is now being forced to cede some of its domain, and increasingly share public space with bikers and walkers.

The direct line from horseless carriage through Thunderbird and Prius to Jetson-era hovercraft seems as if it’s not as direct as we once thought. In fact, the last century may in the long term be seen as the aberration, a detour into strangely full-throated automobility mindless of the consequences.

Slowly, bit by bit, we’re returning home. And, pleasingly, we’re doing so by foot.

This is the twentieth Walking Tour column I’ve contributed since I started down this path at The Smart Set a couple of years ago. It’s also my last.

As such, this concludes the audio portion of your walking tour. I hope you enjoyed your visit. Thank you, and please watch your step upon exiting. • 15 September 2014

Wayne Curtis is a contributing editor to The Atlantic and the author of And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktails.
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