Talkin’ about walkin’

Sep 9, 2018 - 3:15 PM

My love of long-distance city walking originated in the 1980s when I was an editor at the Wall Street Journal, which was then headquartered in the new World Financial Center by the Hudson River, just across from the World Trade Center.

Mornings and late afternoons at the newspaper were busy, but lunch-hour timing tended not to be rigorously enforced in that 24/7 pre-digital era. On nice days, I’d grab a falafel from a street cart and stroll around lower Manhattan, sometimes up through SoHo and into what was left of Little Italy and into Chinatown. Occasionally I’d walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and back. One of the great things about walking in New York: you never run out of city.

Some weekends, I’d persuade my kids to wander the city with me, though that became more of a challenge after they turned into busy teenagers, when my daughter began referring to these excursions as Dad’s Forced March, a term they still use, but now fondly.

I travel a lot to big cities, and taking a long walk in a city is always as crucial to me as fitting in a run is for others. Even with GPS, I often get into trouble when driving. (Not long ago, I spent literally three hours lost after trying to avoid traffic in Seattle while the lady on the GPS kept barking frantic orders at me to take this loop or that bypass.) This never happens when I walk, though of course my range is more limited then.

Not long ago, my wife and I stayed in a nice Airbnb apartment near Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. One day I had a lunch appointment with my Italian publisher in Via delle Fornaci, which was about four miles away, on the other side of town. Worried that I chose to walk in a city I hadn’t visited since 1978, my wife spread out a subway map.

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“Take the metro or you’ll get lost,” she insisted.

I demurred, “I love to walk in cities. I’m just a wanderer, a rambler, a flaneur, a boulevardier—”

“A drifter?” she put in. “Take the metro or a taxi.”

But I walked and was at my publisher’s office within about an hour. Getting there on foot was easy, as it always is in a city with big visual landmarks. From Santa Maria Maggiore, you skirt the Colosseum and the Forum, head over to the Plaza Venezia, which is readily identifiable by that enormous marble heap, the ugliest manmade structure on earth: the Vittorio Emanuel II monument. Turn right, pressing on with St. Peter’s dome as a bearing. Cross the Tiber, dodge the armies of Chinese tourists taking selfies at Bernini’s colonnade, hang a left out the Vatican City wall and voilà (or however the Romans say that), you’re at an outdoor café having lunch with your Italian publisher.

Landmark guidance is, obviously, most useful for walking in cities with familiar sights, including New York, Paris, and London—though walking in London can be more challenging than driving on the other side of the road, in that stepping off a curb requires resisting the nearly invincible instinct to first look to the left.

Apparently, more and more people are discovering the benefits of a city walk. Even Los Angeles, the quintessential city of the automobile, is becoming known for walking. I cite no less an authority than my one-time employer, the Wall Street Journal, which declared last spring: “Meet the hottest new amenity in Los Angeles luxury real estate: walkability.” The ability to walk to urban attractions, the Journal reported, is driving a new trend in Los Angeles–area real estate, from downtown to Beverly Hills. “There are days when I don’t touch the car,” one denizen said.

As such people are no doubt discovering, you see more on foot than you would in a car, bus, or subway. Plus, walking is excellent exercise and better for the environment. But the news isn’t all good: as more people walk, and as some drivers and pedestrians become increasingly engaged with their phones, pedestrian casualties are soaring. In 2016, there were nearly 6,000 pedestrian deaths in the U.S., an increase of 46 percent since 2009, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Meanwhile, in some cities pedestrians face a new, if less-lethal, hazard: electric scooters whizzing around on sidewalks. The problem is said to be especially acute in San Francisco, where companies renting motorized scooters, well-funded as tech startups, are behind the  proliferation. “Fury-inducing,” fumed the website Curbed San Francisco. “Cities need to develop a multimodal lane for more than just bikes.”

Well, that’s one idea. But to quote the late Gilda Radner as the persnickety Roseanne Roseannadanna on the old Saturday Night Live, “It just goes to show you, it’s always something —if it ain’t one thing, it’s another.”