Episode 83: The Pedestrian

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Sarah Goodyear: Guys, I gotta tell you, I have a Cleverhood problem at my house.

Doug Gordon: Sarah, this is an ad. You’re not supposed to talk about problems with the product.

Sarah: The problem is that every time it rains, my wife steals my Cleverhood.

Aaron Naparstek: I had a Cleverhood problem this weekend, too.

Sarah: And what is your problem?

Aaron: It was freezing rain on Saturday. I went to take my dog out. He would not step foot outside of the house because he didn’t have a Cleverhood like I did.

Doug: Well, I guess I will share my problem. So everyone in my household has a Cleverhood, but my daughter’s rain cape is the same bright yellow as my anorak, and she doesn’t like to be too matchy-matchy with her father because she is 12 going on 16. So I don’t know. That’s a good problem to have that we have too many.

Aaron: So the problem basically is everybody needs a Cleverhood.

Doug: And if you want to get a Cleverhood, you can just go to Cleverhood.com/waroncars and you can save 20 percent off anything in the Cleverhood store with code “happycommute.”

Sarah: Cleverhood. If everyone has their own, there’s no problem.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Ray Bradbury: When I was on Wilshire Boulevard one night 50 years ago with a friend, a police car pulled up, and the police inquired why we were walking on the sidewalk. And I said, “Well, we’re putting one foot in front of the other.” Well, that was the wrong answer, and the policeman was very suspicious of us for walking in an area where there were no pedestrians. And I said, “Look, in that direction, nothing. In that direction, nothing. If we were criminals, would we call attention to ourselves by walking? If we wanted to burgle a joint, we’d drive up, go in, burgle it, come out and drive away.” And I was very upset with the policeman, and he told us to go home and not to walk anymore. So I said, “Yes, sir, I’ll never walk again.” And I went home and wrote “The Pedestrian”.]

Sarah: Hello, I’m Sarah Goodyear, and this is The War on Cars—the podcast in which we like to call attention to ourselves by walking. That voice you just heard was the great American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury. The incident he describes in that clip took place in his hometown of Los Angeles in 1949, just as the automobile was solidifying its role as the ultimate expression of the American dream. The run in with the cop inspired Bradbury to write “The Pedestrian,” a short story he published in 1951 in an anti-fascist publication called The Reporter. The story features a protagonist named Leonard Mead, who sets out in the year 2053 for an evening walk on city streets nearly devoid of humans.

[VOICEOVER CLIP, The Pedestrian: To enter out into that silence that was the city at eight o’clock of a misty evening in November, to put your feet upon that buckling concrete walk, to step over grassy seams and make your way hands in pockets through the silences, that was what Mr. Leonard Mead most dearly loved to do. He would stand upon the corner of an intersection and peer down long, moonlit avenues of sidewalk in four directions, deciding which way to go. But it really made no difference. He was alone in this world of AD 2053—or as good as alone. And with a final decision made, a path selected, he would stride off, sending patterns of frosty air before him like the smoke of a cigar.]

Sarah: In Bradbury’s imagined future, a superficially perfect city of three million residents is patrolled by a single autonomous police vehicle. Leonard Mead soon finds himself “fixed like a museum specimen,” as Bradbury writes, in the searchlight of the empty cop car. A robotic voice questions his motivation for being out of his house rather than attending to the viewing screen in his living room like all his fellow citizens. When he responds that he is just walking, the voice commands him to get in the back seat. The car, controlled by some unseen hand, then rolls off, taking Mead to the Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies. Leonard Mead was out of order. He had to be removed.

Sarah: When I read “The Pedestrian” for the first time several years ago, I was struck by how clearly Bradbury saw it coming even then—a United States in which walking is seen as an unusual and even suspect activity. When he wrote his story, the rise of the automobile was well underway, but the extent to which it would disrupt and deform the American landscape wasn’t obvious to everyone. Long distance train travel was still common, and the dismantling of the streetcar system in Los Angeles—where Bradbury had lived since he was a young teenager—had only just begun.

Sarah: Seventy years later, the pre-car era has passed out of living memory for good, and many Americans live in places that resemble Bradbury’s dystopian vision. In most of the United States, outside of a few very expensive cities, walking is no longer what it has been for our species ever since we were a species: the default mode of getting around. The default is now the automobile—and increasingly, the SUV. And in many places in America—especially if you’re Black or brown—just walking to the store the way Trayvon Martin did, or going for a run the way Ahmaud Arbery did, can make you the target of the police or private security forces or of self-empowered vigilantes.

Sarah: Bradbury’s story was the germ of what would become his most famous book, Fahrenheit 451, which imagines an authoritarian future in which knowledge is suspect and books are burned because they might give people the wrong ideas—or any ideas at all. A vision that was also disturbingly prescient. All this got me thinking: what do we lose when we can’t walk around the places we live? And to be clear, I’m including the ability to move around with wheelchairs or other mobility devices that allow people with disabilities the same kind of freedom, autonomy and intimacy with their environment. What happens when we can’t walk because of the way we have built our world, because of the way we police our world and the people in it? What do we take away from people when we eliminate the ability to walk? Does not walking make us less human? Less able to relate to our fellow humans? Less free?

Jeremy DeSilva: The characteristic that defines the human lineage is the way we move. It’s upright walking. It’s the oldest human innovation, if you will. It’s not our large brains—those come later. It’s not our ability to use tools. That comes later. Our language, our art, that comes later. What comes first is this strange way to move around our world.

Sarah: That’s Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist at Dartmouth College, and author of the recent book First Steps: How Walking Upright Made Us Human. Jeremy studies the history of human movement going all the way back—a few million years back. He does it by looking at the fossilized remains of hominins, that’s the fancy word for our primate ancestors.

Jeremy DeSilva: Every fossil that we find, even if it’s a tiny little fragment, contains valuable information that we can use to not only tell the big picture of human evolution, but those individual stories. We sometimes think about fossils of these dusty old things. You know, to me, these are the remains of once living, breathing, thinking individuals who laughed and cried and had a family, and ate and slept and did all the things that I do.

Sarah: You know that famous pictorial timeline that shows human evolution as a linear progression, starting with a hunched over, knuckle-dragging ape, and moving smoothly to an upright, striding man? According to Jeremy, that’s not how it went.

Jeremy DeSilva: It wasn’t linear like it’s presented in that image. There were all these different evolutionary experiments going on, many different forms of bipedal walking evolving in contemporary ancestors and extinct relatives of ours. So if you could jump in a time machine and go back to three, four, five million years ago and go to Africa, you would see different species of upright walking ape sharing the landscape with one another walking in different ways, this amazing experimentation that was happening. And some of these ancestors looked like they were more upright, that they didn’t have this knuckle-walking ability. And so we always think about evolving from a knuckle-walker, but one of the hot topics in our field right now that we’re debating, we’re still trying to figure out, but one possibility is that we didn’t evolve from a knuckle-walker. We never went through a knuckle-walking phase at all. And that knuckle-walking is actually a relatively new form of locomotion that evolved in chimpanzees and in gorillas from an ancestor that was actually a little more upright, a little more like us.

Sarah: In other words, hominins may always have been bipeds. That’s in spite of some obvious disadvantages of bipedalism: it’s much slower than moving on four feet for one thing, making hominins vulnerable to predators. Researchers have been arguing for generations about what benefits outweighed the downsides of walking on two feet, and steered our evolution away from the dominant quadruped model. Theories have included the idea that walking on two feet freed our hands to make and use ever-more-sophisticated tools. Jeremy told me that no one theory explains why we evolved the way we did.

Sarah: What is clear is that the challenges of bipedalism led to certain uniquely human traits: our inability to quickly catch and kill fast, large animals like zebras, for instance, may have encouraged us to be opportunistic, omnivorous foragers, who could eat whatever they found on the ground and in trees. And we did figure out how to catch some of that big game too. Our stamina over distance and our ability to work in groups allowed us to track and exhaust even the swiftest antelopes. The fact of bipedalism has shaped everything about us. It shaped the story of how we became human and what it means to be human.

Sarah: There’s a famous fossil from Kenya known as KNMER-2596. Not a romantic name, but it tells a beautiful story. KNMER-2596 is a small piece of shinbone—or tibia to use the proper anatomical term. That shinbone belonged to a young female hominin who lived 1.9 million years ago. This small piece of fossilized bone tells what may be the most important story of all about human beings. You could say that the entire origin story of humanity’s superpower is contained in this single relic.

Jeremy DeSilva: It’s a two-million-year-old leg bone, and it has all the hallmarks of something walking on two legs, so we know it’s from an ancestor of ours. This particular leg bone has preserved along its shaft a healed fracture. So imagine two million years ago, long before there are hospitals and doctors, long before there’s antibiotics, long before there’s splints or casts. You’re a hominin on a landscape filled with things that want to eat you, filled with predators. And you’re living in a group most likely. That’s the best we can infer is a group maybe of 20 to 30 individuals. And then you break your leg. Now if you’re a quadruped, if you’re moving on all fours and you break your leg, you can still get around on three legs. I’ve seen it with zebras. We see it with cats and dogs. If you’re a biped, if you’re moving on two legs and you break a leg, how in the world do you survive, right? You really shouldn’t. That night, a leopard would probably come and take you. That’s not what happened in this case. This individual has a healed fracture. They made it through it. And I can’t imagine how that could have happened unless this individual had assistance. It’s telling us about sociality, maybe even to some degree care and compassion and empathy in our ancestors. And to me, it’s intimately tied to bipedal locomotion.

Sarah: So just as walking made us more vulnerable physically, it made us stronger socially. We’re social animals. We evolved to take care of each other. That’s part of what has turned us into the most dominant species on the planet. But what happens in a world where our social bonds are fractured? What happens when, instead of seeing other people as our allies, we see them only as threats? As the other? What happens when, like Bradbury’s pedestrian, we walk alone?

Garnette Cadogan: Walking was a set of possibilities, a way in which I’d come into a greater sense of myself, a greater sense of other people, a richer sense of space and place.

Sarah: That’s Garnette Cadogan. Garnette is an essayist and the Tunney Lee Distinguished Lecturer at MIT’s School of Urban Studies. Garnette has written beautifully about walking, and the way it connects our vulnerability to our strength. I found him through his essay called “Walking While Black.” He told me how walking the nighttime streets of his hometown, Kingston, Jamaica, opened up the world for him as a teenager.

Garnette Cadogan: It was a place in which I continually meet people. I’m invited into worlds in which there is one pleasure or delight or discovery, or an encounter with another that just kept enlarging my sense of myself and the possibilities in the world. And I began thinking of walking as possibility. Because that’s what walking was—it was social possibility, it was emotional possibility, even spiritual possibility.

Sarah: But when Garnette moved to the United States, he had to confront another reality. He was, all of a sudden, a Black man in America. And that was enough to expose him to a whole new kind of peril.

Garnette Cadogan: I had to calibrate differently. I had to calibrate to other people’s sense of danger, in which I had become the thing to fear, generally because of the color of my skin. I began to recognize that I had a shade of trespass. Suddenly, I recognized that my status as a stranger, which I felt was what led me to these rich adventures, suddenly became the thing that could put me in danger because of others anticipating that I was dangerous.

Sarah: But Garnette, being the kind of person he is, saw this shift as another opportunity, another chance to understand something about his fellow humans.

Garnette Cadogan: Something was lost, but also gained. That because I had to become hyper aware of people’s fear of me, the very thing I wanted out of walking—to observe, to take things in, to encounter, to be surprised—ironically, that would happen many times because of how much more hyper alert I was of the environment around me. And so yes, there are many ways in which it took things away or sometimes made movement in public space more impoverished than it should, but also because I’m so much more richly attuned to who’s around me and to gestures of openness and to hospitality and to friendship.

Sarah: For Garnette, moving through the streets as a pedestrian—and as a Black man—was a way of claiming them with his attention. Walking while Black was dangerous in a new way, he realized, yet at the same time, there were doors that it opened as well.

Garnette Cadogan: I sometimes fear the term “While Black,” whether it be “Driving while black,” “Walking while Black,” “Running while Black.” I understand that it’s a way of speaking about the kind of things that you’re restricted from doing because of the mere color of your skin. But “Walking while Black” also opens up these rich experiences, for example, of being in New Orleans, and walking past a barbecue, and a group of Black New Orleanians are cooking and you’re like,” Oh, that smells good!” And they’re like, “You like that smell?” And I say, “Of course, I love that smell.” They’re like, “Well, come enjoy that smell. Come on in!” And so I’m very wary of assuming that people are the sum total of the awful things that have happened to them. There’s this wonderful beauty, I think, to walk in wildlife, of not only seeing the obstacles and the awfulness that life has given you, but recognizing what it means to jump over, to push past them, to press forward with perseverance, with generosity, with beauty in the midst of it.

Sarah: Garnette still sees walking as a way to understand and connect with his world and the people in it—not without risk, but in a fully human way.

Garnette Cadogan: You know, one of the beauties of walking is being a stranger and coming into, you know, deeper knowledge of a place. And the beauty of having a space become a place that the more and more you walk through it is the more it inscribes itself upon you. And you’re just moving from being a stranger to becoming family. And so I often think of my relationship with the police as somehow taking the very things that I want to celebrate: being a stranger, feeling childlike, and somehow perverting them. And so the police at their worst degrades that experience. It’s treating a stranger in the way that makes you feel alien from the place that you’re in, alien from your very body.

Sarah: An alien from your own body. That’s what worries me, that the combined effects of automobiles and policing work to rob us of this primal joy, this uniquely human experience of encountering the world at a walking pace face to face. Antonia Malchik has written a whole book about what we lose when we stop walking, when we no longer claim the common space of our communities with our own bodies. Her book is called A Walking Life: Reclaiming Our Health and Our Freedom One Step at a Time. In it, Antonia breaks down the way that our current auto-centric way of moving around has decimated our natural connection to each other and to the environment.

Antonia Malchik: I mean again, you’re talking about millions of years of evolution that we just basically put a wall in front of and said, “Stop.” And the experiment, it’s on our bodies and our minds, but it’s also like all the air pollution we breathe in. That stuff actually does affect our brain health, and our ability to process calories and nutrition. And our heart health is a really big one, and lung capacity. I mean, the studies they’ve done in Utah because Salt Lake City is so polluted, like, on fetuses, you’re in the womb and that air pollution is already affecting your lung capacity and your heart health. It’s like a culmination of thousands of years of these systems and philosophies that trick us into believing that we’re separate from the world around us, and that includes from each other. And I really think that’s the root problem.

Sarah: For Antonia, the way that walking links us to the natural world is the key to repairing our relationship with that world and with each other. Making our towns and cities into places where we can walk without fear of cars or of police surveillance could be a way of rebuilding our health, our sanity, our society.

Antonia Malchik: We need to work on so many problems of our times, like lack of sidewalks and 26-lane highways and, you know, suburban designs that make poor health and loneliness inevitable, and the legacies of redlining. We need to work on all of that, but at the same time, we also need to work on rebuilding this understanding in people that you can’t cut yourself off from a relationship with nature. Like, we are in nature, we’re part of it. It’s just there. And the best way that I know of to do that is walking. And I’ve seen people change the way that they view the world around them through walking, and the way that they relate to other people through walking. And I think it’s going to take a very long time for that to have an effect on society, but, you know, you have to start somewhere. [laughs] You know, everything starts with the first step, right? Walking is always the next right thing. It’s always an answer, even if it doesn’t give you the answer.

Sarah: How can we truly understand a place without walking it? And what does it mean to try to walk in these places that we’ve built specifically as a rejection of walking? I called the writer, David Ulin. He’s an old friend and a native New Yorker. He moved to Los Angeles 30 years ago. In 2015, he wrote a book about wandering the streets of LA. It’s called Sidewalking. David pretty much knows where Ray Bradbury was walking the day the cops stopped him. It was close to the current home of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, or LACMA.

David Ulin: My understanding is that the incident that inspired that story took place on Wilshire Boulevard in mid-Wilshire sort of on the stretch where LACMA is. But yes, I walked that stretch. I was just out this morning walking that stretch.

Sarah: When David arrived in LA as a young man, walking was the only way he knew to understand the city. He writes in his book that he walks to pay attention, and to immerse himself in a world that might otherwise slip by. Sure, he has a car. He uses it to get around, like most Angelenos. But despite LA’s legendary unfriendliness to all things pedestrian, David insists on walking the streets on a regular basis. He sees walking as his way of claiming Los Angeles for himself, a way to understand it on his own very personal terms.

David Ulin: I realized in that act of translation, I was both translating Los Angeles for myself on my own terms, and in some way translating myself on Los Angeles’s terms. I began to be in a kind of active dialog or conversation with the city, in which it was infiltrating me and changing the way I felt about it and maybe cities in general. But I was also kind of infiltrating it in a way. By engaging with Los Angeles in this way, I began to realize that Los Angeles was just a different kind of city, and that in fact, it’s an archetypal city in its own way.

Sarah: That archetype, David says, is profoundly private.

David Ulin: The classic way of moving through the streets in Los Angeles is not to think of the streets as public space, but essentially as a conduit between private spaces. You know, we drive from our single-family house to our office or workplace where there’s a parking lot or a parking structure or whatever. We get back in the car and move through those streets, only to get to another private venue. That carves the city up into a number of private fiefdoms. It destroys any sense of the commons that we have. It’s really essential that the public square, for want of a better phrase, is in fact actually the public square and is accessible to everybody. It’s the only way that we have any possibility of knowing who we are as a collective and knowing who our neighbors are. I don’t know that there are solutions to many of the urban problems that I see, but the only way to even begin to address those problems is by a sense of common space, public space, common shared space.

Sarah: And yet common space, shared space is disappearing in communities around the world under the pressure of the automobile, despite all the efforts of advocates to reclaim some of that shared space for human interaction. It’s exactly the kind of scenario Ray Bradbury feared. Bradbury’s story, “The Pedestrian” ends with Leonard Mead voluntarily entering the autonomous police vehicle that stopped him. Leonard submits to the car’s authority. He has no choice. A pedestrian in 2053 is an aberration. Leonard Mead is a freak, destined to live out his days in Bradbury’s imagined Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.

[VOICEOVER CLIP, The Pedestrian: He got in. The door shut with a soft thud. The police car rolled through the night avenues, flashing its dim lights ahead. They passed one house on one street a moment later. One house in an entire city of houses that were dark, but this one particular house had all of its electric lights brightly lit. Every window allowed yellow illumination, square and warm in the cool darkness. “That’s my house,” said Leonard Meade. No one answered him. The car moved down the empty riverbed streets and off away, leaving the empty streets with the empty sidewalks, and no sound and no motion all the rest of the chill November night.]

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thank you so much to Jeremy DeSilva, Garnette Cadogan, Antonia Malchik and David Ulin for taking the time to talk with us. You can find books by Antonia, Jeremy and David in The War on Cars store at Bookshop.org. We’ll also put a link to Garnette Cadogan’s beautiful essay in the show notes.

Sarah: We depend on our Patreon supporters to make this show possible. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today if you haven’t already. We’ll send you stickers, and you’ll have access to special, exclusive content.

Sarah: This episode was produced by me, Sarah Goodyear. It was edited and scored by Ali Lemer. Curtis Fox read from “The Pedestrian.” Special episode music is from Blue Dot Sessions. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear, and our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs.

Sarah: On behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, I’m Sarah Goodyear and this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Midnight Cowboy: I’m walking here! I’m walking here! Up yours, you sonofabitch! Get outta here!]