Walkers of the World, Unite!


June 12, 1992|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. After Rio, anything is possible! What about a little more walking?

Well, my personal contribution to saving the planet happens to be my delight. In the days when my long-time paper, the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, was on the Rue de Berri, off the Champs Elysees, I would often walk there from my hotel in the Marais, three or four miles down the Seine. It is quite remarkable that one can conveniently traverse almost the length of one of the world's larger cities without having to leave a towpath or a back alley, except for the last 500-yard -- up from the river.

The same is true of London. Setting off from the hotel on the edge of Kensington Gardens where the Patriotic Front stayed during the London constitutional conference on Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, it was possible to walk, without touching a main road, through three of London's great parks, one after another, until I reached the Foreign Office. It is a good three miles, and gave me an hour to digest the guerrillas' propaganda before I took in similar spoonfuls from Her Majesty's ministers.

Moscow, after 9 in the evening, is a good walking town, too. There are no bars, few restaurants and, it seems, little socializing by car. The city goes uncannily quiet and one can walk for miles in the older, more tranquil neighborhoods, working off the heavy food and the even heavier conversations.

Dar es Salaam is quiet at any time of day. Despite the humidity and the heat, walking is the best way of imbibing the full range of sights, scents and sounds. Besides, no one, bar the president, cares too much if you arrive late.

American big cities usually defeat me. I try to walk the first day or two. But in the end the sheer volume of traffic and the lack of back lanes and green shortcuts neutralize the compulsion.

Of course, there are exceptions. Chicago's lakefront is a welcome refuge from State Street, and one of my favorite walks of all is to cross the George Washington bridge out of Manhattan, drop down a winding path to the banks of the Hudson, and then follow an almost deserted and barely known old, unpaved coach road way up the river.

I concede that I am something of a zealot in these walking matters. I am about as far from Max Beerbohm -- ''It is a fact that not once in all my life have I gone out for a walk'' -- as a writer can be.

Put me down in the Alps, the Rockies, the Andes or just the English Lake District and I'm off. I confess, too, that my motivation is not always exercise, but thought. I'm one of those wedded to Bertrand Russell's dictum: ''Unhappy men would increase their happiness more by walking six miles every day than by any conceivable change in philosophy.''

BTC Coming down to earth, as Rio demands, economic and political necessity alone compel us to walk through this decade, rather than drive. No one I know has calculated how much energy we would save if we all decided to make just one of our daily journeys on foot or by bike, rather than by car. It could not be insignificant. After all, the U.S. transport sector alone accounts for one-seventh of the world's oil consumption.

The problem is how to wean people from the motor car. It is, most of us acknowledge, the all-purpose dream machine. One )) can pile it with everything from dirty laundry to screaming children, batten down the hatches and drive off into the sunrise.

Yet, energy aside, we find it difficult to come to grips with its minuses. What would the public reaction be if 90,000 people were killed in European aircraft disasters every year? What would be said if 63,000 young Americans were beaten to death and 50 times as many injured in street violence? But there is hardly a murmur of protest when these numbers perish on the road, victims of accidents.

Jean Cocteau observed that ''a man on foot is automatically suspect.'' Certainly that is the assumption on which road engineers appear to work these days. Look at the new road built to take the Earth summiteers from the airport to the conference, slashing right through Rio's residential neighborhoods and the park at the sea front.

But we are, like it or not, all walkers. Practically everyone walks at some point, although we have to note that walking makes up only two out of 10 journeys of car-owning young men, while old people without cars walk eight out of 10 of their journeys. Even in car-owning households, nearly 20 percent of journeys are made on foot, and of the most motorized of journeys -- to and from work -- walking accounts for 19 percent. As one might expect, children walk the most, accounting for 31 percent of all pedestrian journeys.

But walking bores the transport planners. It is the antithesis of the type of technical challenge they have been trained to overcome. They prefer to put their energies and money into smoothing the path of the motorized vehicle. Walkers, to coin a phrase, are at the back of the bus.

All this is just to make the simple point: We need cities and towns, and country places too, in which it is easy, safe and pleasant to walk. We should walk more. We should be able to enjoy walking more.

Walkers of the world unite: you have nothing to lose but your gasoline prices!

Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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