Essay: Walking may seem pedestrian, but there’s power in every step you take

That old staccato rhythm is ringing out across Foggy Bottom again. In the rush out of residence halls, up and down flights of stairs and on the way to class, sneakers, loafers, flats and boots click and clack, squelch and squish. School is back and in session, and it’s time to pound pavement from E Street to Washington Circle.

When amenities like bars, gyms, grocery stores and barbershops are just a few blocks away in a contiguous grid of letters, numbers and states, it’s easy to get around on foot. Walking isn’t as fast or flashy as a scooter or bicycle, nor does it come with air conditioning or a trunk – hope for a gentle breeze and pack lightly. In fact, walking is such a dull exercise that it’s pedestrian in every sense of the word.

But head a few blocks south to the National Mall, as I have these past few weeks, and the simple act of walking becomes inseparable from politics. While the naked trees and yellowed grass of the Mall in winter don’t inspire awe, there’s something powerful about methodically meandering past the familiar landmarks.

On the Friday before the start of spring semester, I paced along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, watching in the quiet of dusk as the setting sun bounced off the black stone and a sea of names caught glints of fading gold. I listened to the wind-whipped American flags of the Washington Monument thrash against their poles, snapping and cracking in the chilly wind. The fountains of remembrance run dry this time of year, but I still went round and round the World War II Memorial’s sloping basin, past 50 states and U.S. territories bound together in sacrifice.

It’s impossible to rush through the Mall when you can only go as fast as your feet can carry you, a generous 3 miles per hour. But why go any faster? In putting one foot in front of another, I’m tracing the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of people who have roamed the Mall before me. Bound up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, turn around and imagine the March on Washington some 60 years ago. Yes, the March on Washington, not the bike, the scoot or the drive, but the march – the walk.

But whether you walk to stroll past Americana or simply get from point A to point B, walking is political. Public officials determine which streets to close for demonstrations, like last week’s anti-abortion March for Life – again, another walk. They set the length of crossing signals, build and repair sidewalks and turn streets, however briefly, into public plazas. This spring, the D.C. Office of Planning will evaluate whether the city can link Foggy Bottom, the Georgetown Waterfront and Rock Creek Park with new pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in contrast to the current tangle of highways and freeways that divides the areas.

And as of Friday, 75 Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners, including Foggy Bottom and West End ANCs Yannik Omictin, Trupti Patel and Jordan Nassar, have signed a letter calling on the D.C. government “to meaningfully prioritize equity in public transportation and traffic safety infrastructure.” The letter’s signatories are refusing their government-issued parking passes, a move meant to encourage the city to reinvest the thousands of dollars it takes to build and maintain on-street parking spaces into pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure.

Flip through different District-wide data sets, and a familiar pattern emerges. When it comes to walkability – marked by the state of sidewalks and the proximity of resources like jobs, schools and parks to people’s homes – the predominantly Black and historically underserved Wards 5, 7 and 8 are falling behind the rest of D.C. More than one-third of Washingtonians lived car-free in 2019 but not necessarily by choice given the cost of owning, operating and storing a private vehicle. So faced with less-than-reliable service from Metrobus and Metrorail and a hodgepodge of bikes, scooters and rideshares, walking – at least for the physically able – can become a method of last resort.

Back in Foggy Bottom, my walks to the Mall are about 5 miles roundtrip. But Ken Woodward has walked some 2,085 miles around the District, traveling to every street and alley in D.C. while wearing a sign reading “Black and Brown lives matter” between May 2020 and May 2022. “Walking a neighborhood is far different than whisking through in a car or avoiding them all together,” Woodward wrote in an August 2022 Instagram post reflecting on his journey. At its best, walking allows us to reflect, to connect and to listen to one another as we strive to better ourselves – a journey for Woodward that meant “ridding” himself of white supremacy.

But the echoing of rubber soles on pavement can also reveal deep-seated prejudices. In September 2022, three U.S. Park Police officers tased Jonathan McKinney, who is Black, three times after he asked a plainclothes officer not to speak to him when the officer allegedly grimaced before asking how he was doing. McKinney, a professional dogwalker, had been walking home through the Palisades neighborhood after walking a dog. The phenomenon of “Walking While Black,” as Don Temple described his client’s experience, invites serious questions – who gets to walk? Where? How?

I don’t have all the answers. But I do know that a better future runs through creating a world, or at least a District, in which anyone can walk on any street or stroll through any neighborhood and feel safe doing so. There may not be a monument to it on the Mall, but remember the power of a walk the next time you hear that old staccato rhythm.

Ethan Benn, a junior majoring in journalism and mass communication, is the opinions editor.

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