When babies learn to walk, they stumble at first, clumsily cruising from coffee table to couch until a leap of faith finally frees them to walk independently. Even then, the steps are unsteady — most babies don't master the smoother heel-to-toe motion that adults use until they're 2.
Here in Los Angeles, many of us are still learning to walk. Of course, those of us who are physically able have mastered the act of putting one foot in front of the other. But we don't seem to enjoy it. Most Angelenos I know rarely practice the art of simply going for a stroll.
I count myself among the ranks of those in serious need of an education in pedestrianism. I've been walking for 21 years — but I'm still not very good at it.
Sure, I can walk for a purpose: for exercise, to commute or to reach a destination. I almost always reach my targeted 10,000 steps per day, according to my iPhone. But I've never been one to walk just for the sake of it. My whole life I've chosen convenience and efficiency over walkability. Maybe it's the impatience of my generation talking, but aren't there more productive ways to spend your precious time?
I'm not the only one who feels this way. Much of L.A. seems to be on a similar page. Just look at all the complaints we heard about the lack of parking at rail stations when the Expo Line extension opened last month. L.A. built a wildly expensive light rail line to get people out of their cars and Angelenos' first instinct was to drive to it.
The more I think about it the sillier it sounds. Again, I'm no flaneur, but instead of driving the first and last mile to Metro stations — and getting frustrated when we can't find parking — wouldn't it make more sense to just walk?
Yes, walking does take a little longer than driving. And, of course, there are other good reasons Angelenos prefer not to walk. L.A. County had more pedestrian fatalities in 2014 than any other county nationwide, and in the first half of 2015 alone, pedestrian death tolls in California rose 7%. This city is notoriously inhospitable to foot traffic.
But L.A. is changing. Metro is building a public transit system that can become a real alternative to driving for city residents. In order for the new system to work, however, we have to change along with it.
What if instead of treating our first and last miles like chores — and building expensive infrastructure to cater to this somewhat irrational dislike — we teach ourselves to actually enjoy them?
Think about cities replete with pedestrians — Venice, Copenhagen, London and San Francisco. Walking isn't just a pragmatic way to get from A to B in those places — people love it. Life takes place on the street where it should, and not behind tons of steel.
Why should L.A. be any different?
So in hopes of being a part of L.A.'s transition to a sustainable future, I decided to teach myself to walk.
I'll admit, it wasn't easy. To get as broad a feel for walking in L.A. as possible, I planned to cover the 15.83-mile length of Wilshire Boulevard — the same classic walk the local Sierra Club leads annually.
I set out from Wilshire and Grand in downtown L.A. during a Thursday lunchtime rush, with cars crammed in every intersection. Construction closed sidewalks for blocks at a time, leaving me few options but to precariously jaywalk my way across town. Buses screeched. Litter collected in the gutters. At one point, I slipped on a banana peel — yes, literally.
If that's not a sign from the universe, I don't know what is.
When I reached MacArthur Park Lake 30 minutes in, I slumped down for a rest, bored and jaded. Less than two miles in, I already wanted to give up and get back in the car.
But after a break in Westlake, I gave walking another chance. The discomfort eventually started to wear off and as the miles went by I started to appreciate the ornate art-deco details of Koreatown's architecture and the glimmering gold letters on the signs in Beverly Hills. The drivers whizzing past me couldn't pause at the bubbling muck of La Brea Tar Pits and see the joy on kids' faces. They couldn't possibly notice the old man gazing down at the beach in Santa Monica, taking in the serenity of the evening.
It turns out, when you slow down and walk — just to walk — you start to appreciate the city in ways you wouldn't otherwise. You build a sense of community on the street.
Walking integrates us into the city. Driving isolates us from it. Just like babies learning to walk, we'll stumble as we adjust to our city that's still built for cars. Walking in L.A. isn't always pretty. But unless we get out and practice — unless we take the leap of faith — there will never be an incentive to make this city safer and more enjoyable for pedestrians. And that prospect is far scarier than taking the first step.