Walking as a Political Act

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I’m reading a book on the history of walking. I’m taking my time with it because it’s too enjoyable to rush through. I’m particularly enjoying the commentary on social attitudes towards walking in the context of oppression and revolution – what feet to the streets means for political change (primary example being the French Revolution in 1789 and then the movements that fell Communism two centuries later – this was written well before the Arab Spring though the symbolism of feet in Tahrir Square follows suit) and how women and people of colour have been restricted in their freedom of movement.

It’s inspiring to me because I walk everywhere and I’ve written about it ad nauseum. I do not experience the effects of being a person of colour, of a perceived class, or of a person with a visible disability. (The walking stems from the perspective of driving not an option because of a disability, but nobody would assume that seeing me walk.) I don’t need to take note of and caution with law enforcement nearby. I don’t get scoffed at by other people walking by me. Poor sidewalks (and oh boy, are they terrible where only cars matter) don’t render me immobile or put my health at heightened risk. But I am a woman, and I am almost always walking alone. To make that work, I have to pretend I’m safe.

Nothing aside from cat calls (as polite as they are in Canada) has happened from me being a woman walking alone. I’ve walked through neighbourhoods that house disadvantaged people and I feel safe because I choose to feel safe. I walk down streets with no sidewalks because that is the terrain in the suburbs where my diaspora has flocked. I try to stick to well-lit areas and close to the curb where both streetlamps and headlights will deter any predators in case there ever were any around. But I’m happy to say that I’ve stayed safe in spite of the historical stigma and stereotype of women walking alone, particularly at night, and I’ve been able to safely do that at home and in other cities.

I do this because I’m stubborn and cheap and independent and, counterintuitively, lazy as this lifestyle can be used as an excuse to not exercise otherwise. (I’m still forcing myself to run occasionally, though; my self-loathing spite is more powerful than my laziness.) But I’m also doing this for political reasons. I’m a feminist and I believe in every human being’s right to individual safety – and women have further to go in claiming this right than men. I believe more feet on the street snowballs into broader movements, from environmentally inspired car-free lifestyles to public safety in all neighbourhoods to thriving of local businesses that improve quality of life above quantity of stuff as a sustainable economy really needs. I believe in clean air and public space; greenery and art that’s not painted on a concrete mold of a polar bear; visible representation of population density that reflects the vibrance of civilization and increases eye contact between strangers. I can only imagine from listening to people with additional barriers what their pedestrian experience is hindered by, and if I can help at all it’s by walking among them.

I was mocked at first for being interested in this book. The history of walking, after all, is one step after another for millions of years by billions of people, and absolutely boring. But it’s not. All of the physical features that humans have evolved to have beyond most other animal species, and even those that we share in common with all forms of life, are reshaped in social context with mores and political implications developed across cultures over time. Reading its relevance in so many examples refreshes my motivation by showing me how revolutionary this thing I’m doing is. It’s not basic walking, as old as Homo Erectus. It’s independence, dignity, and equality fought for step by step.

So next time you’re going to drive somewhere, take the bus, or call a cab – take a moment. Consider the power of your feet and the choice you have in rewriting the rules.

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