Walking is political

Readers of this blog and of our print editions (and anyone who has been unfortunate enough to bump into me on the street) will probably know of my loathing of cars and my love of walking.

Another fan of independent perambulation is Will Self. He sees it as a cure for the sense of disconnectedness one might experience in the post-industrial urban environment.

He has a piece in today’s Guardian (in fact a partial transcript of his inaugural lecture at Brunel) about walking as a political act. It’s not wholly readable to be honest but it does contain this:

The contemporary flâneur is by nature and inclination a democratising force who seeks equality of access, freedom of movement and the dissolution of corporate and state control.

The article also tells us that walking is in decline, that by mid-century it may be a completely obsolete way of getting around. My recent experience of life in the States would seem to concur, that the future is not bright for walkers. It’s difficult to get from your house to the corner store without a car: not just because of distance but because of a lack of pedestrian infrastructure. Try crossing a three-lane road with no sidewalks to speak of on either side, all to buy a newspaper and an aspirin.

The “mid-century” prediction presumes that the way of the future will be the American way though. I prefer to remain optimistic, choosing to believe in a future predominated by Asian modes of culture rather than American. Economically, this does seem more likely. In which case, we’re looking at the car-free pedestrian-friendly future of karuma banare.

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Robert Wringham is the editor of New Escapologist. He also writes books and articles. Read more at wringham.co.uk

7 Responses to “Walking is political”

  1. Tom Mellors says:

    I’m finding Los Angeles to be exactly the same. It is incredibly anti-pedestrian / anti-public transport. Part of the reason seems to be a suspicion of “socialisation by public transport”. A recent LA Times article about a possible project to build a bullet train connecting LA and San Francisco quoted opponents as saying something like, “Projects like this are an attempt to make us dependent on state-funded public transport like they are in Europe and Asia”. What I find bewildering is that these people do not seem to recognise that by using their car they are dependent on car manufacturers, oil companies and local government for maintaining roads!

  2. What-ho Tom.

    My feelings precisely. While you were in LA, I was in Miami, so it’s the same coast-to-coast. I’m going to visit Boston in a few weeks’ time and I’m surprised to hear the situation is similar there. Apparently people are very suspicious of pedestrians even in that supposedly European-feeling city. Weird! It’s better here in Montreal, but even here there are weird problems like unpedestrianised freeways appearing almost out of nowhere, especially a few miles out of the central business district. Bring on the Asian future!

  3. Anna says:

    Walking, lunch and book-sharing are my favourite political acts, because one can make them a part of their life whilst still stuck in the cube (and planning their escape). If you walk to work, take lunch seriously and spend most of your time trying to sniff out like minded co-workers to share radical literature with, it’s hard to forget the very real world outside your cube.

    One of the most wonderful things about walking is the scale of things your perceive. In a car, everything you notice has to be billboard size, because of the speed you are travelling. ‘Learning from Las Vegas’, an architectural text by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour, talks much about the dominance of signage on the American landscape and its necessity due to the high speed of automotive transport. (Unfortunately these architects are pro ‘decorated shed’ architecture – ie just build a giant warehouse and slap a giant Walmart sign on it and you’ve got your building). But it’s an interesting thought.

    What I’m interested in now is the difference between what you notice at bicycle speed and walking speed. Thought and perception are different at these two slightly different paces. When I walk (choosing it over much more time-efficient modes of transport), it really gives me a chance to understand the space between where I was and where I end up, rather than feeling like all the places I go are disconnected. However bicycle transport is so popular in Melbourne now that I wouldn’t be surprised if a mid-scale of development starts to emerge, ads and buildings that are sized with the attention of the cyclist in mind. Very little is designed just for the walker. Perhaps it’s because there is no money to be made from the humble perambulist?

  4. Manchego says:

    Presuming the future ‘Asian mode of culture’ will be dominated by the Chinese, the pedestrian will be even worse off I’m afraid, as all too regular and horrific cases are testament to. Not only do car drivers not stop for pedestrians, they will gladly deafen you with their horns to get out of the way as they lord it about in their mobile throne rooms. I have taken to retaliating with a 120db personal alarm, thrust through the car window; they never see that coming ; )

  5. Chad says:

    Just found this blog. Interesting so far…

    Not all American cities are LA. NYC and Chicago have fairly good public transit, even if NYC’s isn’t always the cleanest. I live in DC, which has an ok public transit system that is over capacity right now. They need to expand it, but there are still too many people that are living 20 years in the past. This will change as the current generation fades and the new generation, who has only known high oil prices, comes into power.

    Boston has a weak public transportation system. The idiots did “The Big Dig” underground highway project for $14.6 billion. If they had spent that much on a public transportation system they would have been the envy of the world.

  6. Thanks for putting us right Chad. I think I should have guessed that DC, NYC and Chicago were good cities transit-wise. I’ve actually been to NY, and DC is the favourite North American city of one of my non-driving British travelling friends. I’m also very keen to come and visit Chicago.

    Such a shame about Boston! In all other respects it looks very beautiful and practical. The Big Dig, eh? Fascinating. It seems that almost every city has its high-profile bad public planning decision of yore. In Glasgow (where I spent most of my adult life), it’s the stinking motorway that bisects the city. In Montreal, it’s the expensive, malfunctioning (but admittedly impressive to look at) Olympic Stadium.

    Cheers Chad. I hope you continue to enjoy the blog. (RSS)

  7. Sean Giere says:

    Boston is a great walking city. No grid here, so it’s a bit of a challenge. Cambridge and Somerville (across the river) are good places to roam around. Flaneurs unite!

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