On the politics of urban walking

My host looked bewildered when I asked if I could get to the French Concession from the Airbnb in Xuijahui where I was staying. “Chinese people don’t walk,” she said. Why not take the metro?

I decided against it: walking through a city is the only way to get to know it. But despite the broad sidewalks, Chinese cities do not reward using them. The pedestrian’s most nefarious enemy, here, is the motorbike. Delivery men dashing their vehicles over the pavement, scantly avoiding collisions with the throngs of people they navigate around. “Walking” in a Chinese city mostly means stopping, holding, and twisting your body into accommodating shapes to avoid getting hit. The locals, of course, are attuned to this reality as they make their way around. Their execution is flawless. Stopping to watch the play of legs and wheels unfold cannot but make one wonder: Why doesn’t all of this go wrong more often?

But as I make my way underground, I am reminded that the streets are not where the Chinese do their walking in the first place. My host was wrong – Chinese people walk quite a lot. It’s just that, somehow, the spaces they walk through do not seem to count. Most miles in these cities are made in the tunnels between adjacent metro stations. These are more often than not accompanied by mega-malls, spanning entire blocks, a second city under the surface. A jigsaw of non-places seamlessly clicking into each other.

The experience of walking here could not be more different from the one above ground. There are no motorbikes, no cars; just the anonymous throngs of people rubbing against each other in routine conviviality. They walk faster here than they do above ground – but the lack of traffic dangers makes them also seem more ethereal, almost invisible, floating from station to station. Maybe that’s why my host didn’t count this as walking.

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