This post is adapted from a lecture I gave in a co-taught course titled “Urban and Regional Policy Analysis and Practice” (PUBP 6604, Fall 2015, co-taught with Dr. Jennifer Clark)
In 1982, the band Missing Persons released a song titled “Walking in L.A.” on their debut album, Spring Session M. Quintessentially new wave, the song brims with alien synthesizers, power riffs, and female staccato vocals. The lyrics open with a person passing through the city by car, questioning what she sees as she moves quickly through Los Angeles. Moving through the city quickly, she tries to reconcile what can be nothing other than a figment of her imagination—a man on the street. She resists, “I won’t be fooled by a cheap cinematic trick/It must have been just a cardboard cut out of a man.” The chorus enters after this short four-line verse: “Walkin’ in L.A./Walkin’ in L.A., nobody walks in L.A.”. These statements seem punctuated by implicit interrobangs; her eyes must be playing tricks on her. Cops don’t walk “the beat” in L.A.; residents don’t walk unless they “just ran out of gas” or are lost; kids and mothers utilize carpools to remain isolated from the streets. As much as the song claims that nobody walks in L.A., it also catalogs who does walk in L.A. The image of a man on the street must be a cardboard cut-out because L.A. is crawling with “freeway strangler[s]”, “shopping cart pusher[s]”, hippies (“someone groovie [sic]”), and unnamed street dwellers who aren’t “starring in the movies”. In L.A., walking is something left to the unfortunate dregs of society, those people cast onto the street by circumstances or predilections that put them outside of mention. Nobody walks in L.A. means nobody worth mentioning as somebody.
While “Walking in L.A.” has no aspirations of being political commentary about 1980s urban areas, it highlights the important relationship between how we move and how we imagine movement. Stating that “nobody walks in L.A.” is a statement that nobody, at the time, imagined moving through L.A. by foot. Not walking was a cultural performance, regardless of whether the opposite occurred. In this post, I want to reflect on this idea, fallacious or not, that “nobody walks.” While one might discount the idea that “nobody walks” as idiomatic, hyperbolic or simply not real, it embodies one of many cultural imaginaries that construct how and why cities come to be. While this imaginary has changed in recent years, it not dead, embodied in the existing infrastructures and decisions that constitute cities.
In an article comparing the impact of perceptions about walking and driving in Auckland, New Zealand, scholars Catherine Bean, Robin Kearns, and Damien Collins explain the phenomenon of “nobody walks” through the term automobility (a term they did not coin). Automobility describes the wide-reaching and pervasive sociocultural impact of a car-dominated existence. They explain that cars “reconfigure social life, especially in cities, by transforming our ways of organising, moving through and living in time–space”.1 Automobility is very much akin to how Marshall McLuhan describes media2—cars shift how we experience and understand the world by changing what we can do, what we expect, and what we imagine is possible. While the car is obviously important to the notion of automobility, automobility is found well-beyond how people use cars. Bean et al. continue:
As automobility has become dominant, other forms of mobility (including walking, cycling and public transport) have been subordinated (Sheller and Urry, 2000). Walking has been replaced with sitting, riding and driving, and has been predominantly reconceptualised as an inconvenient, slow mode of travel. Indeed, for many, not having to walk has become an important marker of socioeconomic success (Amato, 2004).”3
Bean et al. explain that automobility is socially constructed through the its (re)production in values, spaces, and social ties.
As a pervasive ordering of the world, automobility recasts other modes of transit while reinforcing its value structures. Bean et al. argue that automobility leads to a type of sociality that suffers from “intense flexibility.”4 Cars allow individuals to live within extended, distended, and on-demand social relations that “social life would be impossible without a car.” 5 For examples, cars allows urban social networks to cover larger geographic areas, as well as car allowing social interactions to be happen in wide-reaching and last-minute ways. As such, automobility echoes in “Walking in L.A.”—nobody walks in L.A. who wants to participate in society. Even more, automobility is embedded in the ways we live, and is performed in the decision to drive as much as decisions of if, and when, to walk.
The cultural imaginaries of mobility form a great deal of what we do, don’t do, and don’t want to do in contemporary cities. In recent years under the banner of “new urbanism,” walking and so-called walkability have become common terms, if not priorities, within discussions of urban mobility. A new cultural imaginary is being advanced, one that challenges long-standing models of cities and deeply embedded ways of being in cities. For example, in August 2015, Los Angeles passed their “Mobility Plan 2035”(“the Plan”).6 The Plan outlines 20 years of phased multi-modal transit and urban (re)development. Central to the plan is the idea of “complete streets.” Quoting a January city council motion, the document reports:
“Complete streets” take into account the many community needs that streets fulfill. Streets do not just move people from one location to another. They provide a space for people to recreate, exercise, conduct business, engage in community activities, interact with their neighbors, and beautify their surroundings. Complete streets offer safety, comfort, and convenience for all users regardless of age, ability or means of transportation. They also lead to other public benefits, including improved transportation, a cleaner environment, and healthier neighborhoods.7
As a framing for the Plan, complete streets emphasize walking as a central activity for both transit and leisure, as well as an activity necessary to build stronger communities and healthier cities. While the contribution of walking to community health and interpersonal connectivity is debatable,8 the claims within the Plan are arguments for a different ideal, one that is certainly contestable but no more contestable than than the “impossibility” of living without a car. Countering the ethos that “nobody walks”, the Plan argues that not only do people walk in L.A. but more people should and would if the city supported it. The Plan prioritizes the needs of mobilities other than cars and constructs a narrative frame in light of critiques—opposing the Plan opposes public health, local economic growth, environmental sustainability, and community well-being.
By making walking a greater priority and supporting it with infrastructural and cultural development, the Plan seeks to reconfigure the city of Los Angeles as much as the lives of Angelenos. Much of the critique of the Plan focuses on that latter part, arguing that the Plan unfairly distributes the burden of implementation of those who have no other option but to drive. The 20-year development will choke the city with traffic before the various components are up and running.
With this critique in mind, there is another way to look at the Plan. The very idyllic vision of a future L.A. in which future Angelenos live differently might spark a different question:
“Who doesn’t walk in L.A.?”
Underlying the Missing Persons’ song and invisible from many discussions of automobility, walkability, and transit in general is the walking body, i.e. the walker. In the song, the “cinematic trick” is not the activity of walking, but that someone is walking and willingly exposing a body to the dangers of the world. In the case of the song, those dangers are other bodies—people of various sorts with motives. While we might imagine contemporary cities as fundamentally different than those of 1980s, the relationship between movement and bodies is something that is never erasable in time or space, no matter how much new development emphasizes walkability. The body is made most present in contemporary discussions of walkability in mentions of public safety (i.e. crime). While public safety is important (seemingly only mentioned as crime when fear-mongering is the goal), public safety also erases that bodies are more complicated than the public as a collection of everyone and anyone. Thinking of the public as such again erases the lived body, replacing it with a generic body. Yet no such body exists in any real way; it serves as a stand-in to mitigate variation. Regardless of efforts to make walking a priority, one must always inquire about the bodies implied in walking:
“Which bodies get to walk, and where?”
While we might consider the ways a city is and is not physically and socioculturally disposed for an activity, the city’s construction is one of many forces at work. Who walks is always answerable with a slew of caveats, some of which are tied to landscapes and others of which are tied to bodies themselves. For example, the following exchange comes from the aforementioned article by Bean et al.
Striking about this exchange is the context of walking described and what is not mentioned in the subsequent conclusions. The article uses this exchange to illustrate that walking and socializing go hand-in-hand, and even to support claims that walking leads to greater community socializing. In effect, the authors seem to claim one activity begets the other, without mention that walking and socializing are processes of human bodies. Instead, walking and socializing appear outside of active bodies like environmental processes like erosion and calcification. In abstracting the activity away from the body, the authors fail to mention any discussion about who is involved in this conversation (“Elle” is, presumably, the sole woman involved), and how the outcomes drawn might have skewed by virtue of inherent biases like gender, race, and socioeconomic status. Without reading into this exchange more than is there, the exchange presents more questions than answers about views on walking.
In her collection of essays titled “Men Explain Things to Me”, author Rebecca Solnit explains what seems absent in other discussions. In an essay about violence and gender, she presents the following:
“Think about how much more time and energy we would have to focus on other things that matter if [women] weren’t so busy surviving. Look at it this way: one of the best journalists I know is afraid to walk home at night in our neighborhood. Should she stop working late? How many women have had to stop doing their work, or been stopped from doing it, for similar reasons?” 9
Solnit cuts to the heart of the matter, here in terms of gender. Walking isn’t something that is simply a matter of having sidewalks and streetlights. To walk is to be in the world. While environments support walking, i.e. walkability, no environment can account for walking itself. While efforts to improve walkability in cities are important, those efforts are inherently unevenly distributed to different people because of the bodies implied in walking. Other forces are play in who walks (even in the daytime). While Solnit is concerned with the gendering of behavior, gender is but on marker of difference. Race, as the ACLU points out about “driving while black”, impacts who is allowed to do what where. Walkability, cast in a neutral light of a public good, is not excused from these realities.
While public sentiment is changing, writ large, the catchy pop song “Walking in L.A.” highlights that sentiment plays a huge part. Beyond building new sidewalks, mobility requires sociocultural restructuring. In trying to counter the many decisions already made in a car-centered cities of what to fund and fix, there is parity in the cultural realm of what to value and what to idealize. Even more, these cultural imaginaries are not uniformly distributed, and imply some bodies and not others. As such, it is important to understand the circulations of culture, as much as the circulations of traffic, that define cities and the decisions therein. Maybe now we can update the claim that “nobody walks” to “certain people walk.”
McLuhan, M. (1994). Understanding media: The extensions of man. MIT press. ↩
Bean, C. E., Kearns, R., & Collins, D. (2008). Exploring Social Mobilities: Narratives of Walking and Driving in Auckland, New Zealand. Urban Studies, 45(13), 2829–2848. p. 2832 ↩
ibid p.2832 ↩
ibid p.2833 ↩
ibid p.2833 ↩
Los Angeles Department of City Planning. (2015). Mobility Plan 2035: An Element of the General Plan (Council File No. 15-0719). Los Angeles: Los Angeles Department of City Planning. ↩
ibid. p.14 ↩
cf. Toit, L. du, Cerin, E., Leslie, E., & Owen, N. (2007). Does Walking in the Neighbourhood Enhance Local Sociability? Urban Studies, 44(9), 1677–1695. ↩
Solnit, R. (2014). Men explain things to me. Haymarket Books. ↩