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On Walking

One of the little things that makes me different is that I really like walking. I know that's a funny thing for me to say, given how fascinated I am by driving, but there it is. In fact, I'd say I know maybe one other person who likes walking as much as I do.

It's not that I'm some righteous environmentalist who likes walking merely as an alternative to driving. I like walking in itself. I like looking around at the trees and clouds and so on and thinking about this and that. I like being aware of the action of my muscles as I walk. I like not being in a hurry, being able to stop and look at anything that interests me. The whole experience just makes me happy.

The last two times I've moved, I've been careful to keep myself within walking distance of a grocery, so that when I need something, I can just walk over and get it. The getting is good, the walking is good … it's all good.

Even the carrying is good, because, as it happens, I like carrying things, too. I imagine I am an industrious ant. When someone is moving, I volunteer to help, and nobody ever understands why.

Now, having explained that I like walking in itself, let me go back and say a few words about driving. On the one hand, driving does have some good points. I like feeling the power and speed at my fingertips, for example, and I like seeing the patterns and anticipating what's going to happen. On the other hand, pretty much everything I like about walking is absent … is, in fact, turned into something I dislike. I'm cooped up in a little space, I have to pay attention to what I'm doing the whole time, and I'm constrained to move with the traffic, so that I can't just stop and look at things.

(If you think “cooped up” and “constrained” suggest a touch of claustrophobia, you may be right.)

Actually, if you get out on the open road, you don't have to pay as much attention to what you're doing, and can think about other things. I've heard that that's one of the reasons people put up with long commutes, that it gives them time to be by themselves and think about things. I think there is probably some truth to that.

Speaking of thinking about things, see Another Mnemonic Technique.

Driving has its own unique bad points, too. I particularly dislike having to drive around looking for a place to park—something about it not being a deterministic process really bothers me. Sometimes, in big parking lots, you can apply a different strategy, but sometimes you really do just have to drive around.

To be fair, I should admit that walking also has some bad points … mainly, that it's slow, and your feet sometimes get sore. Nevertheless, given a choice between a fifteen-minute walk and a short drive, I'll choose the walk almost every time.

I understand that what I'm saying is academic, that most people aren't given the choice … or, rather, that for most people it just isn't feasible to set things up so that the choice is available. That I blame on the developers of housing. It would be so easy to include a little nucleus of basic stores in every new development! Maybe that's been tried; maybe it really is true that people would rather drive a long way to some gigantic grocery store or mall than walk to a nice local store. Still, I've never seen it tried. More likely, the current system is just an artifact of zoning laws.

So much for walking versus driving. Now, to finish, I'd like to relate some thoughts about walking in two very different big cities, New York and Houston.

In New York, there are little stores all over the place, and it really is quite practical to walk to them. It would be great, except that, once again, pretty much everything I like about walking is absent. It's hard to see the trees and clouds for all the buildings; and you have to pay attention all the time, because there are all these people hurrying around. I guess I'm just not an urban kind of guy.

I did like walking in Houston, however. I went to school there, and I used to walk all over the place, even though it was stupid. The nearest restaurants were maybe fifteen minutes away; the ones I liked, maybe half an hour; the nearest movie theater, not counting the art house on campus, over an hour. (I don't think I walked that far more than once or twice.) Anyway, the point is, the experience of walking was still enjoyable. I didn't have to pay much attention to anything, and there were still traces of nature to be found in the trees and bugs and humid air.

It wasn't until years later that I understood how thoroughly I'd been alienating myself with all that walking. To me, even a freeway underpass, with its dirt and trash, was a valid place, with its own character; to others, I realized, it might as well not have existed! The only places that mattered to them were the inside of the car, the inside of the home and office.

Even now that I understand that a normal human being—or at least a normal American—wouldn't pay so much attention to the outside, I still do it. I feel like a cell that has discovered that there's not just an inside, but also a skin, and an outside world … only, the skin is the boundary of the superorganism Metaman.

The last time I was in Houston, I went out walking, again, and ended up admiring the view from a bridge over a twelve-lane freeway. The wide road, the graceful flat span of the bridge, the endless streams of cars going this way and that, to no apparent purpose … all combined with the skyscrapers in the distance to form a whole alien world. There was nothing human about it.

* * *

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that there's an important generality behind what I said about parking not being deterministic. So far, though, I can only generalize a little. As I was walking to the store the other day, I happened to walk by a bunch of cars stuck in construction traffic, and it was all very clear to me: I, on my slow but predictable course, was happy, while the drivers, faced with an unexpected delay, were frustrated. So, it's not just parking that's not deterministic, it's also driving.

I'm reminded of that fact from psychology (a fact about the mind), that if you want to encourage a behavior by rewarding it (positive reinforcement), you'll get better results if you only reward it some of the time. Maybe the generality I'm looking for is something like that. Is it possible that punishment is more effective if it only occurs some of the time?


  See Also

  Age of Transportation, The
  Blood Music
  Cricket, The
  Disposing of Things
  On Biking
  On Graffiti
  Walking Barefoot

@ May (2002)
o September (2002)