Last month I got a call from a neighbor in Los Angeles who had seen me out walking eight blocks from our building. He was, very considerately, calling to make sure I was okay. He assumed my car had broken down.
This is regular part of life in LA, where the health of your car is the primary suspect in any outing that exposes you to the "elements" (those being sunshine and warm weather). After all, I was once out for a run in Hollywood when a taxicab, unprompted, pulled over next to me and tried to pick me up. Being on foot is apparently considered a risky move in this sprawled city.
A book I recently finished, Green Metropolis by David Owen, makes a very compelling argument about the environmental consequences of sprawl versus the efficiency of true urban living. Of proximity. One thing Owen doesn't discuss, however, is that walking, like driving, is a learned skill that can make the uninitiated feel uneasy. And most of America is uninitiated.
When I was growing up in New York City, we used to make a game out of walking people into things on the sidewalk. One person would begin to shift their steps ever-so-slightly diagonally, hoping that by the time their companion realized what was happening, it would be too late to change course. Nobody was ever shoved explicitly, they just fell victim to the natural shift everybody else's movement and the silent understanding that your one job as a citizen of the sidewalk is to avoid walking into stuff, including your friends.
It turns out, however, that the rules of the walking game are not universally understood. With people from outside of my childhood romping grounds, simple sidewalk-walking is often a perilous adventure.
Basically, my friends are always walking me into poles.
Adjusting to the needs of the sidewalk, in truth, is as simple as leaving room for a friend to get by an obstacle when you see one coming up. This feels as natural to an urban-dweller as the rules of the mall are to a suburban teenager. It is not, however, natural to somebody who spent their formative years being transported by car.
This might seem a small, irrelevant fact, but Americans' inability to interact naturally with crowds carries over into other parts of our lives. We live in a big country and are big on space. We like large houses located in large (acreage-wise) cities that we traverse in large cars. Internationally, we are known to have some of the most obnoxious personal space requirements around as well as some of the loudest voices, which are necessary to reach each other as we stand an arms length away in conversation. All it takes is one discussion on an Athens street corner with a Greek grandmother to realize that the concept of a "close-talker" probably doesn't exist there.
Perhaps Americans' need all of this space because, not having learned the rules of the sidewalk, being in proximity of too many people feels hazardous. Like the kind of situation in which you might be accidentally walked into a pole.
The need for space, however, gets adapted in cities like New York or, say, Athens, where having a car-sized bubble of personal space is not an option. A seasoned walker doesn't have to view crowds as an impediment to transportation and, by extension, freedom of movement. After all, from elementary schoolers to the elderly, close quarters feel natural to New Yorkers, and walking the sidewalk is second nature. New Yorkers simply handle their proximity with a focus on privacy rather than comfort.
Much of our massive environmental footprint in this country is related to sprawl, and part of what drives the spread of sprawl is that American's think they need empty space to be comfortable. Encouraging interaction with life and people and new things on the sidewalk, however, is both a valuable learning experience and, ultimately, green. Much more green, in fact, than making sure your 3,000 sq foot house is outfitted with Energy Star appliances.
Proximity to other people isn't some sort of evil designed to torture Europeans and the poor. You can be alone in a crowd just as easily as you can be alone in an empty room. The only difference is, you can't be inconsiderate in a crowd. You have to move over when the flow of the sidewalk demands it. It's a simple concession that does you and the environment a world of good.
We all know the rules of the road, but as gas becomes more expensive and we learn more about the environmental hazards driving imposes, it might be a good time to focus on learning a new skill: walking.