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A Conversation with Antonia Malchik, author of A Walking Life

You talk about walking and social capital—can you elaborate?

Social capital is an idea that’s been around since the early 1900s. It’s about everyday relationships between everyday people. I think of it as kind of like building up a bank of trust and knowledge. If a disaster like a wildfire or hurricane hits your community, do you know who will need help getting out? Who has small children or is in a wheelchair? Or who has room to help rescue your pets? What if you’re in a wheelchair and can’t get out on your own? That information, that trust and interdependence, is part of social capital. It’s built through constant day-to-day interaction. A walkable community where people meet and interact with one another constantly is high in social capital. I couldn’t even begin to calculate how much better I know people in my community—through incidental encounters and the conversations they spark—because I walk almost everywhere. And it has no relationship to socioeconomic status. A gated community, especially one with no sidewalks where people drive everywhere, tends to be very low in social capital, not because people aren’t as good but because they simply don’t know one another. The more we can walk within our communities, and the more varied places we must walk to, the more social capital we build up.

What lessons can we learn from walking that we might be able to apply to today’s divisive society?

Obviously, we need to have more conversations among people of differing viewpoints, and rebuilding social capital and true communities will play a big role. But I’m also really interested in the messages our bodies are sending us and how that can be manipulated. When you feel angry because of a news headline or depressed because you’ve been reading your Twitter feed, what do you really know about that emotion and what’s causing it? Are you, in other words, responding according to what you actually know is true in the real world and about real people, or according to outrage constantly triggered by the media you consume? I’ve come to think that getting to know your body—unfiltered through social media—is essential for understanding emotions like anger. Maybe it’s time more of us started asking how our perceptions of people on “the other side” are being manipulated and whom that manipulation serves. Because it’s definitely not serving us.

One of the biggest disservices we’ve done to ourselves and our children is to persuade everyone that a person’s political ideology is the most important thing about being human. How does that help us mourn the loss of a loved one, or survive a hurricane, or pick up the pieces when our hearts are broken? What does it have to say about compassion or sorrow or longing or joy? Nothing.

Every single person I interviewed who’d done a big walk, like walked across America for six months, found that our supposed divisiveness is manufactured. Disagreements are real, but people are still good, still caring, still kind. Walking with ourselves and with one another while eschewing media that feed our ideas of divisiveness can be a path forward, if enough of us choose to do it.

What role does institutional racism play in the creation of car-centric communities?

America’s original highway infrastructure was designed to run right through city centers all across the country. When it was implemented in the 1950s and ’60s, the sections of cities that got demolished were pretty much always African American neighborhoods. The people who had to leave their homes and businesses to make room for highways were legally barred from moving to many of the neighborhoods that those new highways served. Most of the new suburbs, including places like Levittown and other areas where veterans on the GI bill got good home loans, were exclusive to white people. Housing deeds, and local laws, prevented people of color (including war veterans) from moving into those areas. As the decades went by, white people built up real estate capital and could afford ever-larger and more expensive homes. Increasingly, those homes were in far-flung car-dependent suburbs. At the same time, in cities like New York and Baltimore, highways cut African American neighborhoods off from access to good jobs, in part because we’ve poured billions into building ever-expanding freeways while gutting much more efficient and equitable public transportation.

How are walking and freedom intertwined?

When I was living in a completely car-dependent house, I realized that my children and I had no freedom to walk. Literally anywhere we needed to go, I had to drive us. And it hit me that my father, who’d grown up in the Soviet Union under Stalin, had had a lot more freedom in that one respect. His family had to toe the Party line, and real trust was a rare thing, but he could walk in Leningrad for hours with his friends talking about art and music and ideas. I really wonder how the lack of freedom to walk also curtails our freedom of thought.

Another level is physical. We see our world through its infrastructure: streets, highways, fences, sidewalks, political borders, walls. But my view—which I realize is a radical one—is that every human being has an equal right to this planet. Not to use it or abuse it or own it, but at a minimum to traverse it on foot. If you really start to pay attention, it’s amazing how much space is completely closed to you when you’re not in a car. A hundred years ago that wouldn’t have been true.

What was one of the most important things you learned about walking?

There are a few things, but what comes to mind is how attached Americans, at least, are to their cars. I’ve traveled to several cities that are very walkable and have better and more public transportation all the time, and yet people still look at me oddly if I suggest walking and taking the bus somewhere instead of driving. The idea that “to go” somewhere means driving there is so entrenched. I think the only way to change that is to get people walking, to give them more access to walking, to walk with friends and strangers, and most people, eventually, will realize how much better they feel on all levels, not just physically. Which means you also have to make walking-oriented infrastructure a priority along with, for example, getting people to stop parking their cars on the sidewalk, which happens all the time and is really exasperating. We have to have better laws around car use and infractions—why is a hit-and-run treated as an “accident” even if someone dies because you hit them with your car? That’s insane.

Do you wear any particular shoes for walking?

No. We evolved to walk. We don’t need any special footwear to do it in. When I was younger and poorer my shoes were always either hand-me-downs or something from Payless I could wear in an office; now I live and die in a pair of Frye boots I invested in a few years ago (I have a weakness for good boots). Sometimes I walk ten miles a day in them. I get really annoyed by clothes and shoes that wear out fast, it seems so wasteful, so I try to buy stuff that will theoretically last me the rest of my life. I have a lot more problem finding good socks that won’t slip down while I’m walking.