Why Don’t People In The United States Walk?

mom and daughter walking in cusco peru

A mother walks with her daughter through the streets of Cuzco, Peru.

I’m in Southern California at the moment, staying with my parents, and I decided to go for a long walk last night. I didn’t go far, but I was gone for more than an hour and there wasn’t a soul in sight. During my walk, I saw quite a few cars, but very few people. In fact, I saw only one other individual the entire time I was walking – an old man with his dog, who seemed to run in the opposite direction when he saw me walking his way.

This got me thinking, “Where are all the American walkers?”

During my travels in South America, Europe, Africa and Asia, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing people walk. Walking, it seems, is the main way to get around in many parts of the world. To run errands… people walk. To meet with friends… people walk. To socialize and do business… people walk. For millions and millions of people all over the world, walking is a normal, everyday activity!

Here in the United States, however, you rarely ever see people walking – at least not for any real length of time. If you do see someone walking here in the USA, they are usually walking from their home to their car… or from their car to some nearby business or store. Few people seem to walk just to walk.

istanbul walking people

Large crowds of people walk through the streets of Istanbul, Turkey.

I’m sure that anyone who has ever lived in the United States and then traveled overseas has noticed this phenomenon. Or maybe you’ve lived overseas and then come to the United States and noticed the same thing? The truth is, my observations are not unique. There are a number of reasons why American’s don’t walk (i.e. an increased reliance on vehicles, the greater distance between cities and buildings, the negative social pressure that is exerted on those who walk, etc.), but it troubles me in a small and strange kind of way just how foreign we Americans are to the concept of walking.

More importantly, I now realize the social benefits of walking. In much the same way that riding a bicycle allows you to interact with the locals and stop to chat with those you meet along the way, walking is a great way to meet and get to know other individuals. When you don’t walk and instead shield yourself inside the safety of a motorized vehicle, you are shutting yourself off from the possibility of talking to another human being.

This, of course, is fine in some situations. There have been many times in my life where I simply did not want to talk to anyone else at that given moment. But now that I’ve experienced both worlds (the world that walks and the world that doesn’t), I have to say that I desperately miss the walking world.

Now that I’m back in the United States (for the time being), I miss being able to walk outside my door and talk to my neighbors. I miss not being able to easily walk to my local market (because it’s too far away for me to easily walk to). And more than anything, I miss the easy social interactions that walking provides. I miss all that, and even though I know I’ll be returning to Europe soon (where walking is the norm), I wish that when I left my parent’s home this evening I weren’t walking all alone.

Ukrainian woman walking in the street

An old woman walks through the streets of Lviv, Ukraine.


6 thoughts on “Why Don’t People In The United States Walk?

  1. Mimi says:

    I agree with Eliza. I too grew up in the suburbs and there really wasn’t anyplace to walk to. There weren’t any buses either. Cars were the expected means of transportation. The closest bus station was 5 miles away which doesn’t seem far now, but the walk there would have been along a state route no one walked on. It was the most heavily trafficked road in our township. As an adult, I’ve lived in many wonderful cities, Boston, NYC, Seattle. I’ve walked all over all of those cities. I prefer walking to almost any other means of transportation. When I’m out walking I feel present and connected to my environment. I can see where I am and what’s along the way. I love being out in the air and feeling the weather. Most people can’t believe it when you tell them you walked from here to there. They gasp when I tell them I walked. Wow, Mimi, that’s a long way. I say, Well it only took an hour and it was delightful. A few years ago I visited Orlando for a work conference. It was the most hostile place I’ve ever tried walked. The flashing hand on the walk sign began flashing before you got 1/4 way across the 8 lane highways and the drivers yelled at you for being in their way. Again, no natural places to walk to, just a strip after strip of chain restaurants and amusement parks and hotels. If we want a city in which we can walk, we need to design it. We need to make green spaces, safe walking areas, situate safe housing around town centers. Razing the ground, putting in 10,000 houses that all look alike and placing them too far from schools, hospitals, post offices, grocery stores and other places people regularly visit, is a good way to finance highways. It’s not a very good way to invest in communities. It’s unhealthy for the whole ecosystem. I walk anyway. There are a number of walking artists (Monique Besten, Susan Robb, Alex Martin) doing what they can to invite the public out, showing the way to a more connected world. I’m performing a work this spring and summer called The Woman Who Planted Dreams. I’m planting dreams in an effort to manifest the world we want to live in. I’d invite you or anyone else to give me a dream to plant. I’ll be walking for 5 months from Mexico to Canada after one month of biking from Seattle to Mexico. Thanks for your post.

  2. John says:

    My very first night in the States, Blue Springs near Kansas City, I decided to go for a walk to stretch my legs. It was about 11pm and my lady hostess was puzzled that I wanted to go for a walk, like, at all. I was dismayed that there appeared to be no pavement (that’s Limese for sidewalk) so I took a stroll down the highway on the grass verge. I ended up in the back of a black and white, two police cars having been despatched. I first noticed something was amiss upon hearing a whoop whoop! and an amplified voice saying ‘Stand still sir! Stand still! Hands above your head sir! Hands above your head’ and looking round saw two squad cars, all nicely lit up. So a cop got out, approached with his hand on his holster and said ‘Yer not from round here, are ye?’ ‘Erm, no officer. I’m from England’ as if that was a reasonable explanation. It wasn’t, so they needed to check me out and drove me home where my lady-friend almost fainted with shock. ‘It’s OK officer! He’s from London!’ I didn’t bother after that. I was in a car all the time, give or take, the whole three months I was in The Land of the Free. I almost lost the use of my legs.

  3. Gary Brown says:

    The car is so ubiquitous here that we’ve designed our society around it, and the sprawl has made walking impractical for anything but exercise or recreation.
    I grew up overseas, and i see the difference you do. Cairo is a huge city, but it has self contained neighborhoods small enough to walk to do your shopping.
    Look at the weight and health problems we Americans have from 50 on. It’s sad.

  4. Major Allen Espy says:

    And it’s easy to see that a lot of drivers in my America are aggressive, angry and frustrated, likely due to long commutes to jobs to pay for the extra-large homes we have. Walking and socializing lead to healthier people and societies. I just got back from Spain and Portugal, and have lived in Asia. US cities are like ghost towns. And we claim to always be #1.

  5. Richard says:

    I live in a remote military town called Sierra Vista, AZ; it’s about an hour and thirty south of Tucson. This town was not designed for walking at all, but occasionally I choose to walk to the local grocery store and starbucks which is about 1.5 miles away. Oddly enough, I get stares from cars slowly passing by as if I’m doing something extraordinary. I’ve even had a few people stop and ask if I need help. I came from San Fransisco where walking is very normal and common. I feel so much better when I walk because I’m breathing in fresh air and working my joints. It is not normal nor healthy to be insulted in your home all day and then getting in an insulated car to get to another insulated building. It’s important to get fresh air, sweat a little, and get some vitamin D. I agree with the comments above. Towns, especially, underdeveloped ones should develop More pedestrian friendly zones.

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