The Physical and Social Importance of Walking with Antonia Malchik

Antonia Malchik has written essays and articles for Aeon, The Atlantic, Orion, High Country News and a variety of other publications. Her first book, A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time, is about walking’s role in our shared humanity and the damages caused by a car-centric culture. She spent several years as a travel writer and has worked as a church secretary in Austria, an IT journalist in Australia and a barista in Russia. Antonia currently lives in northwest Montana, where she works as a freelance copy editor and writes On the Commons, a newsletter about the commons, private property, commodification and humanity’s relationship with ownership, ecosystems and one another. In this interview, we discuss A Walking Life and the physical and social importance of walking.

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A Walking Life by Antonia Malchik, a book about the physical and social importance of walking

Greg: Can you tell me a little about your background? What led you to write a book about the importance of walking?

Antonia: I was born and raised in Montana, where I currently live. Hiking for hours in national forests and on other public lands was central to my upbringing. My mother grew up on a wheat and cattle ranch in eastern Montana; my father grew up in Leningrad in the Soviet Union. When I was 14, my parents moved us to Moscow in the Soviet Union, and my younger sister and I were left on our own after our morning Russian lessons. We’d wander Moscow for hours. It’s where I learned to love walking in cities. So I enjoy all kinds of walking—roaming both cities and mountains and forests.

I became interested in researching walking while living in an unwalkable area of upstate New York, especially after having children and realizing we were completely dependent on the car to get places. I wanted to write a book for the “everywalker,” a kind of Michael Pollan-for-walking book, especially since I’d lived in cities like Moscow and Vienna, where it was easy to walk everywhere and owning a car was a hassle. It was shocking to realize how inaccessible walking is for most Americans. I looked around at my car-dependent life and thought, This isn’t freedom.

Greg: Why is walking an essential part of what it means to be human?

Antonia: Humans, Homo sapiens, evolved to be bipedal. That is, we evolved to walk on two legs. We’re a unique species in that we’re the only mammals who are obligatorily bipedal. Bears, for example, can walk on their hind feet for a bit, but it’s not their most efficient mode of getting around. Humans evolved to walk this way. Nobody knows why, although there are theories, and, weirdly, nobody quite knows how! That’s why it’s so hard to build a functional bipedal robot. 

If you really look at the mechanics of our bipedal walking, what we’re doing is catching ourselves from falling over at every step. Bipedal walking is so complex that our brains do an estimated billion calculations per second for every step we take. I’d argue that the mental effort involved in walking is on its own a powerful argument for the importance of walking to being human, but there are other aspects, like its role in the development of human communities along with physical and mental health.

Greg: There are now many faster alternatives to walking (cars, trains, planes, etc.). But have some people also lost the right to walk? How did that happen?

Antonia: We’re spending more time sedentary and alone than we ever have before. I have a couple of chapters in the book on this, but to boil it down: post-World War I, the U.S. was still a place where the roads were public spaces that belonged to every user. But more Americans died due to automobile crashes in the few years following World War I than had died in the war itself. Automobiles were considered a public menace. There were massive campaigns to limit their speeds within towns, as well as where they were allowed to go.

The automobile industry was losing the potential to profit from private car ownership, so it fought back during the 1920s and 30s, and was eventually successful in stealing the right of access to public roads. Roads became car-only zones, with higher speeds than were safe for everyone else. The increase of car dominance resulted from a huge public relations and lobbying campaign fought over decades. It led to a national highway system that destroyed countless neighborhoods across the country, and locked Americans into an almost complete dependence on expensive and destructive private cars to access life’s most basic necessities. There are millions of miles all over the country, in cities and in rural areas, where it’s almost impossible to walk places. That isn’t something Americans willfully chose. It was imposed on us, and the idea that we “chose” to be a car culture was sold to us later.

Antonia Malchik
Antonia Malchik

Greg: How is walking tied to democracy and freedom?

Antonia: Walking for protest is a well-known act, but I’m not sure most people understand its power. Protests, even riots, used to be widely protected in the U.S. as part of first amendment rights, with the Supreme Court disallowing attempts at municipal regulation well into the mid-1900s. In past centuries, the House of Lords in the U.K. talked about riot even being essential for democracy. To gather en masse and petition our elected officials is one of the cornerstones of democracy because it’s about accountability. A regulated, managed protest in restricted areas doesn’t have the same effect, and those in power know it.

The act of participating in protest, even if people don’t see an immediate political outcome, can have wide-ranging and unpredictable effects. It builds solidarity and social trust, for one thing. It reminds us we’re not alone in a hunger for justice or defense of rights.

Freedom is fundamental. I don’t think people understand how much freedom has been taken from us by forcing us into car dependence. Relying solely on a car to get to work, for example, can take something like 20% of a person’s income, and most of us don’t have a choice in the matter because public transportation has been so thoroughly underfunded for decades.

How is that freedom? If I have to own a car to get to groceries, to take my kid to a playground, to visit a friend or go to school or work—there’s no choice in that, which means there’s no freedom. Show me a world where we truly have the choice to walk or drive—and by walk I mean walk safely and pleasantly, not having to cross dangerous highways or busy intersections or constantly breathe in automobile exhaust—and you’ll show me a world where we have some freedom of choice about our mobility.

Greg: What practical advice do you have for people who feel they don’t have time, or don’t feel safe enough, to walk for leisure or transport?

Antonia: It’s not always easy to make the shift, depending on your schedule and where you live, but I do think most of us can find a way to walk a little even just a day or two more per week, with a goal of 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. This isn’t a light ask in many places. Walking is simply inaccessible for too many, which is why I wanted to write this book. By looking for places to walk, you can start to see where it’s needed, and you can start to meet other people who want the same kind of access. This is especially true when it comes to disability.

The organization GirlTrek provides a great model for how to commit to walking to strengthen your health and your community. GirlTrek isn’t about Silicon Valley CEOs taking walking business meetings, or poets wandering over hillsides. It’s about real people in real communities committed to walking 30 minutes a day 5 days a week. They work together to find places to walk, and—this is what I love about GirlTrek—start looking at where walking isn’t accessible for them, and why, and what they can do about it.

We need a walkable world, and to bring that back, we need people out there seeing possibilities as well as restrictions.

America Walks is another organization that advocates for walkability, and has chapters all over the U.S. I recommend checking out their site and seeing if there are affiliated groups in your area. They also have regular calls to action. One recent one was when the U.S. Department of Transportation was rewriting its arcane guidebook for road design, and over 20,000 people wrote in letters at America Walks’s urging. Road engineering in the U.S. is focused on traffic flow and speed, not on community benefit or pedestrian safety, and America Walks has been working to change that for a long time.

Once people incorporate walking back into their lives, I really hope they’ll look around and see where walking is inaccessible to people, and work to change that. We need a walkable world, and to bring that back, we need people out there seeing possibilities as well as restrictions.

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing this book?

Antonia: Two things: The first was people. I was amazed to find how many are passionate about walking. Once they heard what I was working on, people would come up to me all the time and tell me their walking stories. One woman never missed her hour of walking at lunchtime, even though it was just around her corporate office park, because it kept her sane. Another woman talked about how vital it was to her to be able to go for long walks in the woods because there’s less risk of being harassed when you’re out in nature instead of on a city street.

The other was that I set out to write a book about walking, and ended up doing that but really I wrote about loneliness, connection and community. Those ended up being the biggest themes in the book and I in no way intended for that to happen. But that is really what walking gives us, those connections, and what a car-centric world has taken away from us. Through building walking back into our lives, we can start to get them back.

Visit Antonia Malchik’s website to learn more about her and her work. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.