For too many of us, walking serves as merely a means to cover very short distances --- from a car to a building entrance, for example. There has simply never been the need for many of us to experience walking as a real mode of transportation or as a way of moving through space and experiencing physical space. Transportation technology has, over time, provided many faster methods of moving through space. Walking has become relegated to a seemingly time-consuming annoyance for many.
The high speeds with which airplanes, trains, cars, and even bicycles transport us through space make walking seem impractical for all but the shortest trips. This is an unfortunate change in the perception of walking. For, what other forms of movement offer in terms of greater speed and practicality, they lose in terms of other important factors. The simple pleasure of experiencing space, for example, is nearly a lost practice -- one might even call it an art or an act of meditation.
Who has not experienced the sensory pleasure of strolling through an old city or town, perhaps on vacation. Whether it be the ancient passageways of Rome, along the canals of Venice, olde London, or the packed sidewalks of Manhattan, walking places you viscerally in the locale. There is no machine to operate, there is no isolating windshield, there is no climate control. Even the simple mechanism of a bicycle represents an intrusion on the pure experience of immersion in the physical environment.
Although simple technologies such as bicycles and skateboards do provide quality experiences in terms of movement through space, their speed is arguably far too high. They also impose the easily overlooked requirement of interaction with a machine, which detracts from a pure experience of movement through space. Walking operates at the perfect speed at which our senses are most open to detailed perception; we are simply built for walking speed.
Details that are but a blur at higher speeds reveal themselves at walking speed. Here is a plaque on an old building describing how Washington's troops passed nearby. There is a mockingbird at the top of an ordinary telephone pole going through its stolen song list. Between gaps in the asphalt, you note traces of the old cobblestones from a previous age. Up ahead, there is a small puddle; did it rain overnight? All would be missed or quickly discarded at higher speeds.
Walking also provides its own built-in rhythm, a rhythm that can induce a meditative state as one moves through space. This is a particularly intense phenomenon in natural settings -- forest paths, meadows, along a lake or river. Here, although the built environment gives way to nature, there is a very similar experience of being open to the smallest detail. If more people walked, in fact, perhaps the human built environment would become less ugly. Perhaps owners of buildings would feel a subtle compulsion to beautify and add detail to their buildings, as they once did -- when more people walked.