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.