Why Is It Illegal to Walk Freely in Most of the US?

Many places in Europe allow walking wherever one’s feet takes them, regardless of private property. In the US? Not so much.

CC BY 2.0. Pixabay

Walking upright on two legs is a defining feature of being human. And way back when, getting up on two feet helped early humans survive by allowing us to cover expansive landscapes quickly and efficiently.

We owe a lot to walking, a fact not lost on the many who have famously (and privately) walked long and far. In Victorian times, the wildly popular sport of pedestrianism gave rise to one of the era’s biggest celebrities. Edward Payson Weston’s 4,100-mile walk, at the age of 71, from New York to San Francisco attracted such throngs of fans along the way that security was required to protect him. Walking was hot!

Edward Payson Weston, the Father of Modern Pedestrianism, 1909.

Public Domain

Modern America's Design Discourages Walking

Now, mostly, we seem to celebrate the art of driving. If I wanted to head out of New York City for a long walk, where would I even start? A highway? We don’t live in a time and place where you can just go out and walk wherever you want. In the first place, the country has become decidedly designed around cars, and secondly, walking on someone’s private property involves the illegal act of trespassing. We have very defined routes we are allowed to walk without much room for roaming off the path.

In setting out to hike the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline, writer Ken Ilgunas discovered that rather than walking or hiking across the country, he would really have to qualify it as trespassing across America. In an op-ed for The New York Times, he whote about the legality of walking and that while here we are forbidden from entering most private land, in much of Europe, walking wherever you want is not only normal but perfectly fine to do:

"In Sweden, they call it “allemansrätt.” In Finland, it’s 'jokamiehenoikeus.' In Scotland, it’s 'the right to roam.' Germany allows walking through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields. In 2000, England and Wales passed the Countryside and Rights of Way Act, which gave people access to 'mountain, moor, heath or down.'"

"Nordic and Scottish laws are even more generous," Ilgunas continues. "The 2003 Scottish Land Reform Act opened up the whole country for a number of pastimes, including mountain biking, horseback riding, canoeing, swimming, sledding, camping and most any activity that does not involve a motorized vehicle, so long as it’s carried out responsibly. In Sweden, landowners may be prohibited from putting up fences for the sole purpose of keeping people out. Walkers in many of these places do not have to pay money, ask for permission or obtain permits."

The Struggle to Walk in Today's America

In 1968, Congress passed the National Trails System Act, which has designated over 51,00 miles of legitimate walking space around the country. Which is great, but how did it come to this? How did this huge once-open expanse, a roamer's paradise, become a place where we are only allowed to walk along certain lines on a map? And as Ilgunas asks, wouldn’t we be better off if we could “legally amble over our rolling fields and through our shady woods, rather than have to walk alongside unscenic, noisy and dangerous roads?” There are numerous studies attesting to the benefits of spending time in nature, and walking is one of the best ways to combat the sedentary lifestyle that is helping to smother this country in ill health.

Moreover, for those who decide to walk anyway, between 2003 to 2012, over 47,000 pedestrians were killed, and around 676,000 were hurt walking along roads.

Blame America's Obsession With Private Property

The right to roam freely was ingrained in early America, but that freedom began to slip away in the late 19th century. The South passed trespassing laws for racial reasons, Ilgunas explains, and elsewhere wealthy landowners became increasingly protective over game, which gave rise to trespassing and hunting laws. While in the 1920s a Supreme Court ruling determined that the public was allowed to travel on unenclosed private land, that freedom was rendered null in the presence of a simple “no trespassing” sign. The Supreme Court has given landowners more and more control of the “right to exclude” over the years. We have become vigilantly proprietary over the pieces of land for which we hold titles.

The idea of private property is so ingrained in our culture at this point backtracking on it, so to speak, may prove challenging if not impossible. And that's such a shame, especially for people who live in areas dominated by a lack of public lands on which to take a walk. And while landowners may scoff at the idea of allowing strangers, gasp, to walk across their woods, in Europe there are restrictions that seem to keep everyone happy. In Sweden, Ilgunas notes, walkers must stay at least 65 yards from residences and could be sent to jail for up to four years for destroying property; in other places there are laws restricting hunting or fishing.

“These laws are often friendly to landowners because, under many circumstances, landowners are given immunity from suit if the walker has an accident resulting from natural features of the landscape on the landowner’s property,” he adds.

Fighting to Keep America Walker-Friendly

In the meantime, there are not a whole lot of people advocating for roaming rights in the States and Ilgunas is calling for more dialog about opening the country back up to everyone.

“Something as innocent and wholesome as a walk in the woods shouldn’t be considered illegal or intrusive,” he concludes. “Walking across the so-called freest country on earth should be every person’s right.”

Until then, at least we do have the National Trails System. It may not offer leisurely saunters through privately owned forests, unused meadows and fallow fields ... and a 4,100 mile walk across the country might prove prohibitive, but it may be the best walkabout workaround we have for now.