A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Saturday, 31 March 2012

Urban Walking

Put bluntly: deprived of mechanised means of locomotion — the car, the bus, the train — and without the aid of technology, the majority of urbanites, who constitute the vast majority of Britons, neither know where they are, nor are capable of getting somewhere else under their own power.

Nor even yet are they able to formulate the desire to do such a thing. So far as they are concerned, the journeys to work, to shop, to be entertained, to liaise with their social circle are all the utilisation of the built environment — such unpremeditated and willed walking as there is remains within these contexts, the most egregious example being the shopping mall itself. Yet a little over a century ago, 90% of Londoners' journeys under six miles were still made on foot — many of these would have been commutes, but even a walk to work involves a physical possession of the built environment and the exercise of orienting skills.

Year on year, the number of journeys taken on foot declines — indeed, on current projections walking will have died out altogether as a means of transport by the middle of this century.

WILL SELF (From his inaugural lecture as Professor of Contemporary Thought at Brunel University)

Le Flâneur by PAUL GAVARNI, 1842

When I spent a weekend in London recently, it didn't even occur to me to take a bus, tube or taxi. I simply walked. It seemed the natural thing to do. Evidently I'm in the minority.

According to a lecture by novelist and social commentator Will Self to students at Brunel University, urban walking is declining year on year, and could one day die out completely. What's more, if you look closely at your fellow walkers in an urban environment, you'll notice a strange thing: most of these walkers have ears attached to MP3 players and eyes glued to smartphones. Some are even navigating their way using GPS apps. They are just enough aware of their physical surroundings to avoid collisions with other walkers, vehicles, street furniture; but their actual, sensual, perceptual awareness of the environment has been reduced to a blocked-out minimum. Self believes such walkers are in a condition similar to psychosis.

I find this a sinister, frightening state of affairs. We are losing the ability to do the most natural and healthy thing in the world: to place one foot in front of the other and explore what's around us without distraction. We are losing the capability of finding our own, self-chosen way as we become increasingly dependent on Sat Navs and GPS systems. (I've noticed that the skills of navigating by intuition, by natural signs and markers, and by map reading are all atrophying in younger generations.) We are losing our sense of space, distance and perspective as we divorce ourselves from the real world and become ever more immersed in a virtual one.

I myself love strolling through cities, soaking up the atmosphere, setting myself little route-finding challenges, discovering hidden squares and alleyways, wandering at will. There is no greater freedom or enjoyment. Even in stores and hotels I usually take the stairs, rarely the lift. I just don't want to be reliant  on mechanical transport. I want the freedom and independence of my own two feet where I can and for as long as I can.

So it seems that the flâneur is morphing into the techno-navigateur. Are we all now bi-pedally doomed?

(Click here for my latest post at Turnstone and here for my latest post at words and silence.)


The Weaver of Grass said...

Mayb there is room for all Robert. A walk through any of the major parks in London would be lovely - as was a walk through Central Park in NY - but I did see more of London on an open topped bus and ditto New York.

David, who has been to both Heathrow and Gatwick many times, had never actually been into London. The other year we took a taxi from King's Cross to Victoria, en route for Gatwick - through the Mall, Trafalgar Square, Marble Arch etc. He was not amused by it all and declared that that was as much of London as he wished to see!

Nick said...

I think you are being a little harsh on your fellow (urban) men and women - and perhaps, just perhaps, you are accepting a little too easily Mr Self's pronouncements as simple and complete truth rather than (at least partly) a drama calculated to suit a particular situation he was in. In any event, we tend to adapt to our situation and, when it changes, adapt again to meet the changed situation. And by 'we' I mean all of us, urban man included.

George said...

As you might expect, I find myself in full-throated support of your position on this matter. As a general rule, I will always choose walking to a destination if it is possible and I have the time. I love the feeling of simply exploring a city on foot, coming to an intersection and considering the possibilities, trusting that following my instincts will often lead to something unexpected. lovely, or who knows, perhaps even magical.

Rubye Jack said...

I love gadgets but have never felt the need for a GPS. At all. The only way imo to become acquainted with a city is to walk it. I used to walk all over San Francisco when I lived there, and saw lots of other fellow walkers. However, I know there was growing concern about purse snatchers when I left a year ago. They'd no qualms about hitting a walker and grabbing whatever they could. Perhaps that is part of why less people walk?

Dominic Rivron said...

Spot on. A friend and I, years ago, regularly fantasized about walking across London, West to East. We never got round to it, unfortunately. We even planned to discreetly bivvy on the way.

Although in one way walking through a city is a very different experience to walking through the sort of wild environment I generally prefer, it is also true to say that cities are no less a part of the natural world than ant hills.

Goat said...


Some random but loosely connected observations:

People over here (Korea) are even closer to complete atrophy of the lower limbs than the average Australian. I'm told EVERYONE who drives here has a sat-nav and that basic map-reading is in decline. Streets here are seldom named (as in Japan) -- and who needs names when the sat-nav directs you to your destination?

Computer-game mania keeps almost all of my male students at least indoors even on weekends...

I've had people decline a walk with me to a bakery at lunch because it's 15 minutes' away. I do it every day. I do a half-hour round-trip walking commute Mon-Wed and a 90-min one the other days.

Haven't owned a car since 1999.

Paradoxically, walking is becoming even better for the brain nowadays as one has to constantly out-manouevre pod-zombies. It's almost like you're in one of those cheesy early video games where you have to cross a road without bumping into anyone.

People always stare at me blankly when I deride, say, the garbage on the roads, the ugliness of some new construction or the piss-poor state of the footpaths/sidewalks (or their non-existence). A large part of the blame is probably the fact that people don't walk. If you don't walk, YOU DON'T NOTICE ANYTHING. Driving a car precludes any observation but the immediate front, sides and rear of your own vehicle. Even riding a bus is a form of hypnosis.

As you point out, surely it's impossible to do any real travel, urban or rural, without a large amount of ambulation. How can you have experienced a place otherwise? Through glass? OK, maybe from a bicycle seat...

That bloke Mark Moxon talks about "Tube Walking" on his website, which I think is urban adventuring in London following subway routes. I did my own version in Tokyo once, following the Chuo Line into the belly of the beast for about a dozen stops. Fascinating. A whole world exists UNDER THE TRAIN LINES (elevated of course) that most commuters wouldn't even notice...

Even many less affluent families in Australia have two or more cars. Australians are among the fattest societies on earth these days. So much for our healthy outdoor "bronzed Aussie" image.

Friko said...

Robert, I don't believe this. There is no public transport to speak of in most of the smaller towns and cities and that's where most people live. Even in London buses and the tube don't decant you at your destination, you do have to walk some distance, even if it may be a short one. I think Will Self has madly exaggerated.

Vast numbers of people stroll about in shopping streets, and although I am now rarely in London, I still walk through smaller towns, in the company of many other pedestrians.

I haven't yet seen empty town centres or people attached to roller blades. And the other stuff about mp3 players etc., well that doesn't appear to be true for as far I have seen either. Yes, people use phones and young people frequently have little things stuck in heir ears, but it's hardly the norm for the vast majority of the small town population.

The Solitary Walker said...

Hey, that created some discussion, didn't it?

Thanks for your comment, Pat. Of course, my piece was intentionally exaggerated — and there is indeed plenty of walking being done, not least in London's magnificent green spaces.

Ditto what I said to Weaver, Nick. Self always tends to dramatise. However I think there's a core truth in what he is arguing.

George, you are as romantic as I am!

It's a shame if a fear of crime puts people off walking, Rubye. There are definitely certain urban areas where I would be loth to venture. (Both my son and some of his cousins have been mugged in London.) Related to this, I know there are some women who fear ever walking alone anywhere. I think this is a great pity, as the more solo women walkers there are, the safer it is for all of them.

Goat — thanks for your long and interesting comment! (Friko, take note! It may happen over here!)

Yes, as I've already mentioned, Friko, I think both Self and I are exaggerating to make a point, and it's probably more true in the bigger conurbations. Smaller country towns are a different thing. (So far.)

Jenny Woolf said...

I entirely agree with you about walking. I like walking and also cycling, whenever possible. I have to say I find Will Self a bit irritating though - he seems to be a sort of guru about everything.

Sometimes, though, one just doesn't have the time to walk or cycle - though in town, cycling is usually quicker than public transport or car,. once you've dealt with getting to the station, parking, etc.

The Solitary Walker said...

I think Will Self often is often insufferable, Jenny ... he's kind of taken over from Martin Amis in the irritating stakes for me. Trying to analysing why, I think you're right: they're just too damn brilliant! And don't mind flaunting the fact. (I may be just a tad jealous here of course.) Their novels I find too knowing, too ostentatiously 'clever', and too apocalyptic. Self in particular seems to go out of his way to find some obscure word for something when there's a perfectly ordinary one to hand. And if I hear one more time about his drug addiction, and about how he used to shoot up in aeroplanes, I think I'll scream.

Susan Scheid said...

We have the last few days been down in the city (New York, for us, that means), and what I love so much about it is that I can walk anywhere, right out of the apartment door. Yes, I do take the subway for longer distances, but there is nothing I like better than to walk and take in all that is around me. It is such an irony for me that, when we are in the Hudson Valley, it is necessary to get in the car to drive somewhere to take a walk. There are lovely places to walk, of course, but to me, heaven is to stay out of the car and just use my feet. So, I'm with you, walker. You needn't feel solitary in your pursuit.

Jaime Evade said...

This is true. I live in the country, so I don't walk anywhere because it would take days to reach anything, but I noticed when I was visiting Chicago that everyone was listening to MP3s as they walked around. I don't know. Society changes. Who's to say what's for the worse or better.

Ruth said...

I'm afraid I have a lot to say in response to this post!

First, bravo, Robert! I'm with you!

I always walk when I visit cities, and feel guilty for not using the bus! When in Paris, a compass comes in handy, because when I exit the Metro, it is not easy to figure out from the map which side of the street I am on. I've had this happen in NYC too. Which way is Central Park? When getting off the subway, this is not easy to sense.

When you mentioned the earpods, I remembered an incident from a few summers ago on the train between Dublin and Cork. Husband and I were riding, and in the seat opposite us sat two gentlemen: one was around 70, the other seemed to be a high school kid. He had earpods in and completely missed hearing the older Irish gentleman sing an Irish tune under his breath. Priceless!

When I plan a trip to a city, I structure a couple of major visits, to museums or whatevers, then leave the rest of the day open to walking and discovery, which usually turns out to be where and when all the most memorable things happen.

I could go on, and maybe I will later...

Goat said...

By the way, SW, great header shot! Did you take it from the car window?

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks for your visit and comment, Susan. Yes, there's nothing quite like walking — the sheer freedom and exhilaration of it. You see so much more that way. In my job as a publishing sales agent I drove 30,000 miles a year for 25 years. Now I avoid using the car whenever I can. I do love train travel, however ...

Jamie — thanks for your your comment, and welcome to my blog!

Ruth — don't apologise! I love it when you have a lot to say. Many thanks for such a great comment. I use a compass myself from time to time, and always carry one in my backpack on long treks. Really useful. Have never used one in cities, though. What a brilliant idea! Leaving part of the day unplanned is such a good plan! I like to do this myself also. And, as you say, often the most memorable things occur with this more unstructured approach.

The new header photo I took a few years ago on the Via de la Plata in west-central Spain, Goat. Thanks for your appreciative comment about it. I do like the colours, and the wide open expanse, and the endless straight track. (Not taken from the car — I know you are joking! In fact I don't think I saw a vehicle, or indeed another person, for hours on end that lonely, wintry day ...)

Joanna SF said...

I love walking and encourage people to walk to work, between bus stops etc. on my blog, because even the shortest journey makes a difference. You discover freddom, explore and just walk not distracted by anything.
Thanks to walking I was able to discover much more of London than I would do by bus. I connected dots on the map and because of that has a much better sense of where I am in the city.