Episode 94: Walking the Walk with Jonathon Stalls

Aaron Naparstek: We are excited to introduce you to a new podcasting ally in the war on cars. Mode Shift is an audio series that explores the past, present and future of how we move. Hosted by Andrei Greenawalt and Tiffany Chu, Mode Shift digs deep into the question of how to build a new transportation framework that cuts dependence on personal cars and creates more options for everyone. Tiffany and Andrei do a great job of blending storytelling, history, policy and interviews with excellent guests like Tiffany’s very own boss, Michelle Wu, the mayor of Boston, Massachusetts. They’re doing some of the best transportation reform work in America right now. Mode Shift is also beautifully produced and easy on the ears. And if you enjoy The War on Cars, then we highly recommend giving it a listen. Find and follow Mode Shift on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts. We will include a link to mode shift in our show notes as well.

[Jonathon Stalls: Y’all, pause. Take a deep breath. We are fragile human bodies. Our arms, our limbs are imperfect. We’re not promised anything. Here we are, moving through these landscapes. Feel how harsh it is. Feel it. And to be in a humble place too, I’m always—I’m always trying. Sometimes my anger—my anger and screaming in the void gets the best of me, but I’m always trying to come back to this is not me attacking any one of you. This is inviting all of us into the raw and honest harm that we are all a part of.]

Sarah Goodyear: Hello and welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Sarah Goodyear. The voice you just heard belongs to Jonathon Stalls. Jonathon is the author of a new book called Walk: Slow Down, Wake Up, and Connect at 1-3 Miles Per Hour. It’s a subject that he has researched with his own body. You see, Jonathan is a little different from a lot of the people we interview for this show. He doesn’t approach the streetscape as a planner or as a journalist or as a politician. He approaches it—and this is his term—as a “walking artist.”

Sarah: What does that mean? Well, from his base in the Denver area, Jonathan has for years been leading urban walking excursions for community groups, and raising awareness about how tough things are out there for people on foot or rolling on wheelchairs. Many of these walks have included planners and elected officials, inviting them to feel for themselves what it’s like to walk the car-centric streets of the communities they serve.

Sarah: Jonathon wasn’t always a walker. He grew up in the same auto-dependent world as most Americans, but a set of personal challenges led him to embark on a cross-country walk in 2010 that took him from coast to coast and changed his life. He tells some of that story in Walk, but at its heart, the book is a call to action. The chapters have titles like “Walking as a Human Right,” “Walking as Relationship,” “Walking As Resistance.” Jonathon invites readers to get out and experience the world on foot or in a wheelchair for themselves. He includes lots of exercises to help people make that exploration.

Sarah: One of my favorites is the one-mile radius. Let’s say you live in a city, but use a car to get to most destinations. Jonathon suggests that you draw a one- or two-mile radius around your home, and then commit to only walking or rolling on trips within that radius for a specific period of time, be it a day, a week, a month or longer. What can you learn about yourself and your environment? What new insights will you have into the place where you live? I spoke with Jonathon about his book, his Pedestrian Dignity Project, which connects with people around the country on social media platforms, and about our shared passion for walking and helping others explore the world outside the confines of the metal boxes known as cars.

Sarah: Jonathon Stalls, welcome to The War on Cars.

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah. Well, thank you.

Sarah: Tell us about the origin story that you begin the book with, which is your walk across the United States in 2010. Maybe you could just tell us how that walk came to be, and how it became the foundation for what has happened since.

Jonathon Stalls: So I’ve always, always considered myself an artist. I kind of go by the term nowadays as a “walking artist.” I’ve always been an artist. As a kid, I moved every two years of my life growing up and, you know, was working through some hard things as I got into my 20s. I’m queer, gay, and I was coming out, and there were a lot of things that were really difficult about that for me. And I knew that I needed an experience to kind of recalibrate and just lay some ground for what life would look like ahead. I wanted a whole new landscape of teachers via the Earth and nature and strangers and people, and just to have time moving with the things going on on the inside.

Jonathon Stalls: So I was like, “I don’t know—I don’t know what I need to do, but I need to do something and I need to disrupt the defaults.” And so a series of things led me to do a walk across the United States in 2010. So I left the Delaware coast in March, and walked for 242 days to San Francisco and the Pacific Ocean. And it was so much learning, as you can imagine. I was so eager to be taught by the things I experienced and learned. And I just—I was a sponge the whole way through. I was terrified. I had never done anything like this before. I was shuttled around via a car most of my upbringing. I often describe it as like the way a cheek feels as it’s smashed against the inside of a passenger window watching the world go by. I felt so disconnected from anything outside of interior environments and just some hard things I was working through. So—so yeah, so that walk was transforming on every level. Every level.

Sarah: And so when you finished it, it seems that you didn’t really want to stop walking in a sense, right? That walking was gonna be your way forward in life?

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah. It was so healing for me. It became home. I went to 14 different schools as a kid. Home was a complicated framework. My parents split when I was younger. I have great relationships to my family, but it was a lot of chaos. And so I was so eager to find a pace or a situation or a framework that I could trust. And so yeah, I knew that I needed to keep walking after this experience. I stayed with over 120 strangers, people that were just all walks of life, you know? So I just every day experienced almost like the maximum benefit of moving the way we’re made to move from a mental health standpoint, a physical health standpoint, a nature connection standpoint.

Jonathon Stalls: But I also experienced the devastation and the harm of being a pedestrian through towns and cities and suburbs all across the US, and the isolation and the exposure and the lack of accessibility and the disconnection. And so all of these forces were coming together every day for 242 days. And it just—it was—it was a serious body-based education. And I just—I couldn’t not continue walking. And as an artist, I just wanted to create around all of that.

Sarah: How did that continuation of the journey manifest?

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah, so one of the things that was really loud from the beginning was just what happened when I was moving with other people. You know, I walked with—and people who were on wheelchairs and powered scooters—moved with so many people of different backgrounds, people that wanted to join for an hour or half a day or a day, people that I just ran into and stumbled upon along the route at a bus stop or underneath an overpass bridge while we shared a shade break from the sun.

Jonathon Stalls: And the stories, the things that we were able to connect on because we were moving in an unhurried way, it was profound. It was simple and basic, but profound in comparison to kind of car-centric frameworks of just bypassing each other and everything around us all the time, all day. And that was mostly my experience before that long walk. And so it was profound for me to have these everyday encounters.

Jonathon Stalls: And so after the long walk, I was like, “How do I help connect us in ways that help us move more intentionally, shoulder to shoulder, side by side, moving forward together under a more open sky and not just inside of walls?” And so I experimented with this project called Walk to Connect for many years. It became this amazing community of what we called “walking movement leaders,” where we trained people all over the country, and mostly in Colorado, to host all kinds of walking events related to health and community connection and placemaking and pedestrian safety, meditative and contemplative stuff. You know, learning about trees and plants and herbalism. I mean, we had so many events going on for years, and the primary thing was about centering human connection. Just how do we move the way we’re made to move and get to know each other in the ways that were more shaped to be getting to know each other?

Jonathon Stalls: And throughout my work with Walk to Connect, I would host a lot of events with planners and engineers and city council members and different community leaders on these issues of safety and connection, but from a lived experience perspective. And it was so consistent how often this would be the first time, the very first time, that someone who was working in these fields or just representing a district would be out experiencing these corridors by foot or on a wheelchair or via bus. And over and over and over again, it just was—it was shocking to me. It was a pointed opportunity. I’ve only had a car for two years when I was helping out my grandfather many years ago, but I’ve been without a car most of my adult life. And it just got louder and louder. And so I started kind of dipping into the creative spaces and experimenting now with a project called Pedestrian Dignity, where I’m just [laughs]—you know, just really raw and messy and unapologetic about the harm, but also the opportunities related to being a pedestrian moving through time and space.

Sarah: So you describe one of these excursions you took with some planners in I guess the Denver area in one of the chapters of the book. And you talk about just how exhausting and frightening at times, and unpleasant, harrowing that experience was. And as you say, these people who are responsible for these spaces in various ways have never even begun to experience that, so experiencing it for even a couple of hours in one day is a big surprise for them and a revelation. Do you think that that kind of revelation does translate, has translated in any cases into the kind of systemic change that is gonna be necessary, or at least an attempt at the beginning of systemic change?

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah, it’s a great question. And to be honest, it’s a hard—it’s a really hard one to, in a linear way, to answer in terms of, well, this—you know, this specific project, infrastructure change policy. But hands down, I see over and over and over every single time, every time there is a kind of a vibrational shift. You just feel it with everyone involved, especially those working within the systems, working within cities and states and transit agencies. And you just—you feel the empathy expanding.

Jonathon Stalls: I frame it as almost three different brains. We have our mind brain—this is such a general way of framing it, but a mind brain, a heart brain and a body brain. And to just have a conceptual, intellectual relationship to what it’s actually like being a pedestrian, going practically from A to B, is—it makes sense why we are so far from seeing urgent, active, radical change related to something we’re made to be doing, related to all the reasons why we should be protecting more space and budget and everything for it. And you see it. I witness it every time.

Jonathon Stalls: So in the heart realm, people are actively experiencing stories and witnessing elders and community members waiting at bus stops without shelters and benches, holding groceries in the median of these large arterial roads, and really having moments of connection that they’re not gonna forget. And then the body brain of not just am I witnessing it and am I observing it, but I’m actually feeling the terror of a semi-truck and a bus that’s literally 12 inches away from my body while I’m also trying to navigate and share a nonexistent sidewalk with two mothers pushing strollers and babies on—you know, it’s the tension of all of that living in the body after these experiences.

Jonathon Stalls: You know, I see it show up in, you know, how different agencies and leaders either reach out to me to tell me updates related to what conversations they’re having inside their systems, related to inviting us to different things or, you know, wanting to show what’s happening internally. It’s not anywhere close to where it could be or should be, but I see a lot of change kind of in the heart and in the lived experience, and I trust that that’s going somewhere.

Jonathon Stalls: The other thing I’ll just—I’ll add related to this kind of work, and it’s why I’ve shifted a lot of my focus on younger audiences, younger generations, is the bridge that this can have as younger people are developing a relationship to civic engagement and advocacy, that from this lived experience perspective, like, as they’re shaping this relationship to engaging how they want to see their community, their roads, their intersections, that they’re activating all three brains. They’re so engaged on media related to the videos and things that I’m experimenting with, they’re out there experiencing it for themselves. The number of emails and messages I get within a week of young people in high school and college who are using pedestrian dignity as their capstone project, or they’re getting their peers and their teachers out to experience these things. And it’s endless. And it’s inspiring to see all those things working together. So it’s hard to answer that question formally, but I think energetically it’s consistently changing people.

Sarah: I’m interested that you talk about trying to reach the place where people know in their bodies, and maybe in their hearts as well but not in their minds, that the way we are moving around our places where we live and work is really wrong and unnatural. [laughs] You know, that—I mean, you say at one point, “Metal boxes, metal boxes everywhere.” And then you write, “How could this behavior not significantly impact our capacity to more genuinely connect to one another, to our deeper selves, and to the needs and wisdom of the planet?”

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah.

Sarah: When you’re actually in the practice of doing this, what are some of the ways that you help people to awaken to that reality of how disconnected they have been, maybe for their whole lives from, you know, one of the most primal human experiences?

Jonathon Stalls: The two things that come up that are so important to me, there’s many things that show up on these experiences or even just, you know, in the practices in the book, and just however I experiment with inviting, and I always kind of frame it as lived experience. I know because I’ve sweated in it. I know because I’m getting burned by the sun without shade. And I know because I’m getting splashed by the cars as they rip by me. You know, that kind of—I know because I’ve lived it. And how do we—how do I invite that? How do we invite that as such an important, relational, honest, raw, messy educational opportunity for all these things.

Jonathon Stalls: And so two things that show up a lot in these experiences, one is to the best that I can, to the best that we can, doing it in partnership, literally co-creating these experiences with residents, and specifically residents who are primarily pedestrians. They walk or they use a wheelchair and take transit as their primary form. And, you know, having support and stipends for their time, and doing it with a lot of care and a lot of co-creation. Because when you can do that with people that have no choice but to be out there, there’s not only an empathy around, but there’s a groundedness that you can’t conceptually fly away even if it’s uncomfortable.

Jonathon Stalls: It’s like there are people out here that have no choice, millions that can’t financially, socially, legally, physically, medically drive a car. And how are we literally feeling that in our hearts and in our bodies as we’re moving and being guided and supported and really pressured by those residents at the same time? So that feels like a really important piece when hosting these things. The other thing is I’m just always pausing the experience or the group or the walk or the roll constantly to just anchor into the senses. Like, anchoring into “Notice how this sounds. Notice how this feels.” Every day, every morning. And pausing, you know, if it happens to be sunny or cooler out, making sure we’re pausing. Imagine rain. It rains here. Imagine snow. Imagine ice. Scanning the environment all the time for pedestrians in the area so that there’s again, not just taking that bypassing mindset which can easily come from the car. If you get—if we’re meeting in a group and we’re doing this pedestrian dignity experience, you’re getting out of the car, you’re joining us, you can still have the bypass brain on. Like, you can be thinking about all your things.

Jonathon Stalls: And so it really takes work to, like, y’all pause. Take a deep breath. We are fragile human bodies. Our arms, our limbs are imperfect. We’re not promised anything. Here we are moving through these landscapes. Feel how harsh it is. Feel it. And to be in a humble place too. I’m always—I’m always trying. Sometimes my anger—my anger and screaming in the void gets the best of me, but I’m always trying to come back to this is not me attacking any one of you. This is inviting all of us into the raw and honest harm that we are all a part of, and what are our roles and how can we break it up and stop feeding something that’s so harmful? And so I riff all the time just depending on the location and where we’re moving related to trees and nature and smells and ecosystems. And it’s always anchoring to reinvite people into their senses.

Sarah: We’ll get back to our conversation with Jonathon in a minute. But first, this message.

Doug Gordon: After a brief surge of beautiful fall foliage, it’s starting to get a little gray out there. One way to liven up your walks and your bike rides—especially during the worst weather—is with Cleverhood. Cleverhood makes the best rain gear for walking and cycling hands down. I have their rover rain cape in red and the new War on Cars anorak in our trademark yellow. And just putting them on makes me happy. So much so that I now look forward to rain so I have a chance to wear one or the other. Cleverhood is a small, independently-owned business based in Providence, Rhode Island, that works with talented garment workers, small suppliers and promotes local economic development. And it supports nonprofit organizations working to make our streets safer, more sustainable and more equitable. Listeners of The War on Cars can save 15 percent on everything in the Cleverhood store, including the Rover Rain Cape in fun colors like blue, pink and green or even black. Whatever color suits your mood. Visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code CLEVERFALL. That’s the word “CLEVER” and “FALL” all smushed together at checkout to claim your discount. Stay dry and stay happy with Cleverhood.

Sarah: You include a lot of writing by other people in the book, and it seems like you’re often turning to people from marginalized communities. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how paying attention to those marginalized communities can help to create a world that is more kind and welcoming to all of us as pedestrians as we move through this world.

Jonathon Stalls: Oh, yeah. Oh, my gosh. Yeah, it is—it’s so important to me. It just aches out of every pore when I’m out there. And it’s so imperfect. I don’t even—it’s just always learning. Always kind of fumbling and trying and—and leaning in and pushing back and listening. And just it’s a constant dance. The one thing that is very consistent and so important to me, and it kind of goes back to that co-creation, the relationship piece, is how important relationships are and trust are with different communities, different backgrounds, different lived experiences especially. It relates to something so raw and public, and something very much, very much in—and it becomes blatantly clear how systemic racism shows up in transportation. It is loud.

Jonathon Stalls: And classism in transportation. When you’re walking or rolling on these arterial corridors, and you have an understanding of redlining in your city or community, you have an understanding of zoning and land use related to low mixed-income housing, where the bus routes are, and the support going to make and help that experience feel as safe and accessible and comfortable as possible, it is loud and clear how that stuff shows up and how these invitations are created. Just—it’s so important to me that the relationships to people who move through the world in those really diverse spaces, mixed spaces, inclusive spaces, it’s how those relationships are formed, how trust is formed. Just in general, how are we—how is our—is our community? How am I just as a resident? How are our cities and our planning departments and all these different consultants that float in these different—how are we in a healthy, trusted, honest relationship, not controlling, manipulative, transactional, but relationships that actually heal us and bring us together with listening and humility, and not all the things that we’ve seen related to really harming our relationship. And I’m speaking “our” being kind of like this—a lot of white, straight, cis patriarchy.

Jonathon Stalls: You know, I use the term in my book. One of the sub-chapters is called “White Supremacy and Unconditional Love,” because that tension of this isn’t this—isn’t just about bad, bad white people. This is like—this is being just honest about history and systems and current systems and current policies that continue to separate us, and continue to center a certain group of people over others. And it’s such an important thing to just be humble and to unpack it. And I don’t know all the answers.

Sarah: I’ve read a lot of books about walking, but your book is different from any other that I’ve seen in that it really is structured sort of like a traditional self-help book with, you know, shaded boxes and bullet pointed, you know, activity lists.

Jonathon Stalls: [laughs] Right.

Sarah: What I think is so interesting is the way that you toggle between this sort of self-help or self-empowerment model and this systemic conversation—the conversation about how do I make that life one with meaning, and one in which I am at least changing the things that I touch in a positive way. Can you talk about how, as you were writing the book, you balanced and moved back and forth between those ideas?

Jonathon Stalls: It was and it is a literal tension, not tension necessarily from a negative frame at all, but just these really complex things that I’ve at least fumbled into and found my way, but also have connected to as medicine,as a teacher very much starting on my long cross-country walk. But the tension between what you’ll see in the chapters of the book and all the practices related to our connection to ourselves: how do we connect and listen to our own bodies as a form of healing? There’s so much in these frameworks that want us to shut down what is actually going on on the inside. And that can be grief, that can be joy and celebration, that can be just expression, that can be resistance and anger and protection, that can be all these things that we shut down for a lot of reasons that make sense. Some of these things are not easy to be in.

Jonathon Stalls: But I connect that in the book because I feel like it’s so important, related to something so inherent, so intrinsic: a human body moving on the Earth, whether that’s on foot or on a wheelchair, like, the way you’re made to: unhurried, humble, available, tender even. And having something be so interrupted, disrupted, manipulated, blocked. And I use the term “separation” a lot in the writing because there’s just the layers of separation that keep us further from ourselves, that keep us further from each other, that keep us further from the wisdom of trees and rivers and sunsets and the things that the natural world is constantly communicating to us.

Jonathon Stalls: And so for me as an artist, to me, it all connects. It all paints a picture related to whether or not a city or a community or a neighborhood or a policy prioritizes the pedestrian. To me, it connects. They all touch.

Sarah: Right.

Jonathon Stalls: Like, if I’m gonna spend a little bit of time walking and breathing with the tree, or moving slowly next to an elder, or listening and observing and sitting next to someone at a bus stop, whatever it is, or just taking the time to breathe and move so I can be a little more clear in my mind and my heart so I’m not suppressing everything all the time, it’s gonna help me show up more spacious, more open, more relational to the voices and stories of people who are different than me. It’s gonna help me want to care and protect the water that I’ve stopped to listen to every week, every day, because I’ve created a relationship to it. I’m connected to the water. It’s not just—it’s not a transaction, it’s not just extraction. Water is for my use. People are for my use if I’m bypassing and separating. But if I’m breaking up all that wants to separate us—imperfectly messy. There’s no one way to do this. But if I’m trying to break up all the things that are out there to separate you from me and me from you, I think it’s a huge field for how we more authentically co-create more human, healthy, inclusive, accessible spaces.

Sarah: As you were talking about the imperfection and thinking about, you know, the sort of messy, shaggy outside of a human body, and then comparing that with the sleek carapace of a motor vehicle, and how much primacy we give to the shell of the car, and even putting a small scratch on it or, you know, touching it even is considered to be a transgression, a befouling. And that the sleekness of the exterior of a car helps us to maintain the fiction that perfection is possible.

Jonathon Stalls: Yeah. Yeah. [laughs]

Sarah: Which it really …

Jonathon Stalls: Oh, my God. Yeah. This illusion of control, this illusion of speed and power over time and the Earth and any other human single-occupant vehicle driver in your path, I mean, it is vicious. I use the phrase “decenter cars” a lot. Like, the center of the identity, that right of passage when we literally—in the US especially and all over in so many ways, but where the rite of passage from young adult to adult at the age of 16 is centered around automobile ownership and mobility. The harshness of how many ads and how much energy wraps the vehicle around one’s identity is so harmful.

Sarah: Like I say, it’s part of this story we tell ourselves. And there’s so much that we’re not honest about in terms of our fear of how little control we have over our lives in general. And then the car is something that helps us to push that farther down and to pretend that we do have some kind of control. And in doing that, I think that we lose what little control we might have, or what kind of positive control we might have.

Jonathon Stalls: It’s why I just wanted this book to just be so heavy on stories and practices. I mean, I have these essays that kind of float in between, and it’s why I put a lot of my pen and ink art in there, because it’s going to meet each individual so differently, so uniquely. If it’s a hard thing to hear or if it’s a hard thing to understand in the mind, the practices are there to just encourage, go out and feel it for yourself. Go out and breathe it in yourself. Go out and make it yours in your own way.

Jonathon Stalls: We have so much context for our lived experiences, which is why I think to what we’ve been talking about for those who grew up in cars and have only seen the world through cars, that lived experience is informing all the defaults—feeding it, sustaining it, maintaining it. But as soon as that lived experience is either forced into change or invited into change or, you know, I think via some of the practices in the book, self-selected into change a little bit, to just experience another way. Replace your trips for a week or a day, or part of your trips. Drive and park the damn car half the way to work, 15 minutes outside of the grocery store. Don’t park the damn thing right up in the grocery store and slowly move around the grocery store for 15-20 minutes to observe. What would it be like to approach this grocery store on foot or on a wheelchair? You know, if you don’t move in a wheelchair, you’re not gonna know that experience fully, but you can at least start opening up the defaults in relationship to time and where you park your car to start having these micro experiences that give you more and more context as well. So yeah, there’s so many practices in the book that are trying to just—and trying, trying to just break up and break apart the defaults.

Sarah: Thank you so much for coming on The War on Cars. It’s really been a huge pleasure and affirmation for me personally to talk with you.

Jonathon Stalls: I’m so grateful. Thank you for this invitation. I’m so grateful for all your work, and everything you all are putting out there. So it’s—yeah, it’s an honor to be here. Thank you.

Sarah: That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Thanks again to Jonathon Stalls for the conversation. We’ll put links to Jonathan’s website and social media feeds in the show notes. And you can purchase his book, Walk at the War on Cars page at Bookshop.org. That’s Bookshop.org/shop/thewaroncars.

Sarah: If you want to support production of this podcast, head over to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and join today starting at just $3 a month. You’ll get access to exclusive bonus content and other rewards like stickers. I want to give a special thanks to our top Patreon sponsors: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law Office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, Mark Hedlund and Martin Mignon.

Sarah: Thanks as well to our friends over at Postscript Media. Their Mode Shift podcast explores what’s holding our transit systems back, and what we can do to unleash their potential to make a better world for people who walk and roll the streets of our communities.

Sarah: I’d also like to thank our friends at Cleverhood for their ongoing support. And for 15 percent off everything in the Cleverhood store, including the official War on Cars yellow anorak, visit Cleverhood.com/waroncars and enter code CLEVERFALL at checkout. That’s one word—CLEVERFALL.

Sarah: This episode was produced and edited by me. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Sarah Goodyear, and on behalf of my co-hosts Doug Gordon and Aaron Naparstek, this is The War on Cars.