Boris bikes 'good for health of users', study says

The London cycle hire scheme was launched in 2010

"London's cycle hire scheme has had a positive effect on the health of its users, suggests a study in the British Medical Journal.

It says '"Boris bikes" have greater benefits for men than women, and for the over 45s who have more to gain from increased physical activity.
These benefits outweighed the negative impact of injuries and air pollution.

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When the cycle hire scheme was introduced, there were widespread concerns that increasing the number of inexperienced cyclists in central London would lead to higher injury rates”
Dr Anna GoodmanLondon School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
Encouraging more, older people to use the scheme would increase the health benefits, the UK researchers concluded.
The London cycle hire scheme, sponsored by Barclays bank, was introduced in 2010 and championed by the city's mayor, Boris Johnson, to such a degree that the bicycles came to be known as Boris bikes.
The authors of the study, from the Medical Research Council, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and University College London, looked at the cycle hire scheme over the course of one year, from April 2011 to March 2012.
They tracked 578,607 users' journeys during this time and used data on physical activity, travel, road traffic collisions and air pollution to work out the health impact of hiring a bike in central London.
They found that the benefits "substantially outweighed" the harms, when the injury rates for hired bike usage were taken into account.

Co-study author Dr Anna Goodman, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said this confounded expectations.
"When the cycle hire scheme was introduced, there were widespread concerns that increasing the number of inexperienced cyclists in central London would lead to higher injury rates.
"Our findings are reassuring, as we found no evidence of this. On the contrary, our findings suggest that the scheme has benefited the health of Londoners and that cycle hire users are certainly not at higher risk than other cyclists."

Bike hire scheme facts

Docking station for London bike hire scheme
  • More than half a million users made 7.4 million trips on London cycle hire bikes during the year of the study
  • These trips would otherwise have been made on public transport (47%) or on foot (31%)
  • Almost 71% of cycle time was made by men
  • There are now 8,000 bicycles at 571 docking stations in London
  • Around the world in 2013, 636 cycle hire schemes were operating in 49 countries, using 600,000 bicycles
The researchers measured the health benefits in terms of Disability Adjusted Life Years (DALYs) - the number of years of life gained or lost to illness, disability or premature death.
For all men in the study, the combined gain was 72 years, while for women it was 15 years.
Among men, almost half this benefit was from reductions in heart disease, while among women the largest benefit was seen in reductions in depression.
But when injury rates for all cycling in central London - not just the hire scheme - were used as a comparison, the benefits were found to be smaller for men, and shrank to virtually nothing for women because of the higher death rate among female cyclists following a spate of deaths in London last year.
Looking at older age groups, the study found that although the injury risks increased with age, the benefits of exercise for the 45-59 age group onwards "substantially outweighed the harms".
In the 30-44 age group, the benefits "marginally" outweighed the harms, the study said, because many of the diseases affected by physical activity are less common in younger people.

Dutch example
Dr James Woodcock, a population health scientist from the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, said the health benefits could be even greater if cycling was made safer, as it is in the Netherlands.
"The Netherlands manages to achieve high levels of cycling with low risks, not by focusing on helmets and hi-vis, but by providing high quality infrastructure that physically protects cyclists from busy, fast moving traffic."
Roger Geffen, campaigns and policy director at the national cycling charity CTC, said the health benefits of cycling were well documented but people tended to have an exaggerated perception of the risks involved.
"This can be a major deterrent to cycling. It's not entirely unfounded - we still need to see action to reduce actual and perceived dangers of cycling.
"But you are less likely to be killed in a mile of cycling than a mile of walking. One cyclist is killed on Britain's roads for every 26 million miles travelled by cycle.
He added: "Cycling is far more likely to increase your life expectancy.""

What biking’s gender gap really says about America

by  October 1, 2014

"In recent years there’s been overall major support for biking among Americans, but women make up only a quarter of all bike trips in the United States.
Earlier this year, major bike share programs released data showing a glaring gender disparity among bike renters in New York, Chicago, and Boston. Women riders accounted for an average of 23.5 percent of overall rentals across these cities.
The raw data in these studies points pretty blatantly to the existence of the gap. As with any study however, the numbers themselves aren’t as important as where they come from, or as what we choose to do with them.
So let’s take a closer look.
For starters, the reasons behind many women’s reluctance to biking has been well documented. Elizabeth Plank at Mic writes the gender gap can largely explained by a mix of “women’s aversion to risk, women’s clothing, economic and time poverty, as well as sexual harassment.”
Women frequently cite safety as a major concern for cycling on the road. Lacking infrastructure and aggressive drivers are among several major risk factors that many women weigh in deciding whether to bike or not.
Beyond traffic safety, personal safety is on the line as well. Grooming and getting “office ready” post-ride keeps many women off bikes. And whether they’re wearing work fashions, cozy weekend gear or “cycling chic” clothing, many women are subjected to sexual harassment while biking.
Beyond those issues, and a long list of traffic concerns, we land on the issues of time and money—the two categories into which seemingly all other factors fall. We know that on average American women make less money than American men, so women need to spend more time working to make even close to an equal wage. They also frequently have more increased responsibilities at home compared to their male counterparts, hence, less time.
For many women, using a bike as a major mode of transportation just isn’t efficient for their lifestyle. For plenty of others, biking is just the right fit. Whether the majority of women want to bike or not isn’t the issue. The issue is working to eliminate the frequent barriers to biking so that any woman who wants to do it can if she chooses.
That’s a long road. But the data, at least, serves as a reminder of the strides we still need to make, and at best, offers some opportunities for action."

Walking or cycling to work 'improves well-being'

Commuters who changed their mode of travel to cycling or walking felt more content
14 September 2014

"Switching from driving a car to walking or cycling to work improves our well-being, a study suggests.
Active commuters felt better able to concentrate and under less strain than when travelling by car, University of East Anglia (UEA) researchers said.
Even going by public transport was preferable to driving, data from 18,000 UK commuters over 10 years suggested.
Researchers said policies encouraging people to leave their cars at home could have a big impact on well-being.
The physical health benefits of exercise are already well known and this study reinforces the idea that there are positive psychological effects too.

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People feel better when they have a longer walk to work”
Adam MartinUEA
The study, carried out at UEA's Norwich Medical School and the Centre for Health Economics at the University of York, used data on nearly 18,000 adult commuters from across the UK over 18 years.
Out of this group, 73% said they went to work by car, 13% walked and 3% cycled to work. About 11% used public transport on their commute.
Those who had an active commute were found to have a higher level of well-being than those who went by car or public transport.
When researchers analysed the wellbeing of a small group who swapped the car or bus for a bike or going on foot, they found they became happier after the switch.
A busy London street
Walking or cycling to work improved the commuting experience
The study looked at feelings of worthlessness, unhappiness, sleepless nights, and being unable to face problems. The researchers also accounted for numerous factors known to affect well-being, including income, having children, moving house or job, and relationship changes.
Lead researcher Adam Martin, from UEA's Norwich Medical School, said: "Our study shows that the longer people spend commuting in cars, the worse their psychological well-being. And correspondingly, people feel better when they have a longer walk to work."
Mr Martin said the study's finding that commuters felt better when travelling by public transport, compared with driving, was "surprising".
"You might think that things like disruption to services or crowds of commuters might have been a cause of considerable stress.
"But as buses or trains also give people time to relax, read, socialise, and there is usually an associated walk to the bus stop or railway station, it appears to cheer people up."
The UK Faculty of Public Health welcomed the findings of the study, published in the journal, Preventive Medicine.
It said streets that were for people, rather than cars, promoted neighbourliness and helped everyone to have happy communities."

Heaven’s Gaits

Walking competitions were the favorite spectator
sport in the late nineteenth century.
What we do when we walk.

"Why people walk is a hard question that looks easy. Upright bipedalism seems such an obvious advantage from the viewpoint of those already upright that we rarely see its difficulty. In the famous diagram, Darwinian man unfolds himself from frightened crouch to strong surveyor of the ages, and it looks like a natural ascension: you start out bending over, knuckles dragging, timidly scouring the ground for grubs, then you slowly straighten up until there you are, staring at the skies and counting the stars and thinking up gods to rule them. But the advantages of walking have actually been tricky to calculate. One guess among the evolutionary biologists has been that a significant advantage may simply be that walking on two legs frees up your hands to throw rocks at what might become your food—or to throw rocks at other bipedal creatures who are throwing rocks at what might become their food. Although walking upright seems to have preceded throwing rocks, the rock throwing, the biologists point out, is rarer than the bipedalism alone, which we share with all the birds, including awkward penguins and ostriches, and with angry bears. Meanwhile, the certainty of human back pain, like the inevitability of labor pains, is evidence of the jury-rigged, best-solution-at-hand nature of evolution.

Over time, though, things we do for a purpose, however obscure in origin, become things we do for pleasure, particularly when we no longer have to do them. As we do them for pleasure, they get attached either to a philosophy or to the pursuit of some profit. Two new accounts of this process have recently appeared, and although they occasionally make you want to throw things, they both illuminate what it means to be a pedestrian in the modern world.

Matthew Algeo’s “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport” (Chicago Review) is one of those books which open up a forgotten world so fully that at first the reader wonders, just a little, if his leg is being pulled. How could there be an account this elaborate—illustrated with sober handbills, blaring headlines, starchy portrait photographs, and racy newspaper cartoons—of an enthusiasm this unknown? But it all happened. For several decades in the later nineteenth century, the favorite spectator sport in America was watching people walk in circles inside big buildings.

The story Algeo tells begins in 1860, at the start of the Civil War, when a New Englander named Edward Payson Weston made a facetious bet with a friend that, if Lincoln won the Presidential election, he would walk all the way from the State House in Boston to the unfinished Capitol, in Washington, in ten days. Lincoln won, and, ten days before the inaugural, Weston set off. Though he didn’t get there quite in time, his progress, chronicled by the newspapers, enthralled a nation in need of some small fun, and he became an improbable American hero, a kind of Lindbergh of the corns and calluses. Liking his new celebrity, and the money it brought, Weston decided to keep a good thing going and, when the war ended, began to engage in competitive, six-day (never on Sunday) walking marathons in Chicago, New York, and, eventually, London.

For the next two decades, while baseball burbled around the amateur edges and boxing went on in the shadows, walking really was the dominant spectator sport in America, and Weston its central figure. He had the brains to adopt a singular and consistent costume, a gentleman’s gear of hunting trousers, boots, and riding crop. In time, a poor Irish immigrant to America, Daniel O’Leary, emerged as his opposite in style, and so his great rival; together, they staged walking races, symbolic class contests, immigrant vs. native, over several long sessions in several big towns. O’Leary was, in a Jackie Robinson-like way, perceived as a credit to his race, restoring the honor of the Irish, stained most recently, in Chicago, by the episode of another O’Leary and her cow. Working-class enthusiasm for the contests was so keen that indoor stadiums were needed. In New York, P. T. Barnum’s Roman Hippodrome, in the East Twenties, got covered, first by a tent and then, soon afterward, by a real roof, in part to contain and show off the walking marathons. (Eventually, that Hippodrome evolved into the original, sadly lost Madison Square Garden, where walkers walked, and where, in 1879, Weston, freshly returned from his London exploits, was given a hero’s welcome.)

The sport was surprisingly open to the talents. There were African-American walkers—the real Jackie Robinson of the sport was one Frank Hart, who was a protégé of O’Leary’s and therefore called Black Dan—and there were even legendary women walkers, like Ada Anderson, who trained in Wales and then took a boat to America to walk for cash. Walkers were the first mass-culture sports stars: when a tobacco company inserted trading cards into cigarette packs, what the cards showed was pictures of the walkers. O’Leary, after a London contest, returned to his home town in Ireland and received a hero’s welcome of his own.

What accounts for the popularity of watching folks walk for long days? Algeo, discussing the moment when the craze took off in Chicago, first suggests that walking ruled because there was nothing much else for the working classes to attend. But then we are on to England, where the sport is for a time every bit as popular, and, while there may not have been much cheap popular theatre or music hall for the working classes to go to in Chicago, there surely was a lot of it in London. The truth is that many waves sweep mass society that have no more explanation than the oceanic kind: a random blast of wind drives a swell, it snags on a rock, and then the wave crashes. By the late eighteen-seventies, walking had started getting ferocious hate mail, or sermons, chiefly from New York City preachers, who thundered against it as a “gladiatorial” sport. Soon there was legislation, still on the books, prohibiting six-day walking marathons.

The contests, one comes to see, were no longer really walking competitions. Mostly, they were, or became, something crueller. They were competitions in not sleeping. The ability to walk well—to have Weston’s odd big stride or O’Leary’s right light step—had surrendered to the more brutal ability just to stay awake for six days. (Weston eventually admitted to having chewed coca leaves while racing, although, Barry Bonds-like, he strenuously denied that the drug really helped.) The crowds were not coming to watch the walkers walk. They were coming to watch them drop.

Competitive walking, in its maturity, turns out to be less a charming game from an age of innocence than one more episode in the modern fascination with rituals of human endurance, made exotic by technological advance, and fuelled by the same morbid curiosity that gives us the demolition derby, books about survival on Everest, and the ice-bound stunts of David Blaine, along with “Survivor” and “Deadliest Catch.” Our appetite for watching people stumble from exhaustion soon moves from one kind of spectacle to the next, perhaps partly because we’re ashamed of having enjoyed the previous one. This may also explain why each one, when it goes, can leave so little track behind. We keep our eyes fixed on the horizon to avoid having to look back over our shoulder in embarrassment.

“Walking is not a sport,” Frédéric Gros announces, in the very first, single-sentence paragraph of his new book, “A Philosophy of Walking” (translated from the French by John Howe; Verso), already a best-seller abroad. “But what about Weston and O’Leary and Anderson?” the newly instructed reader wants to shout. No dice. Gros is a professor of philosophy at a French university—at the finest of French universities, the University of Paris XII, and also at the great Sciences Po—and if you did not know this in advance you would not have to read much of his book to guess that it was so. He is not the kind willing to make even a minimal Google search (“Sport promenade histoire”) before writing. Instead of historical argument supported by evidence, or chronicle illuminated by interpretation, he gives us oracular assertion, supported by more oracular assertion. In this game, it is batting average that counts: if four out of ten of your oracular assertions arearresting oracular assertions, you’re golden.

And many of Gros’s oracular assertions are arresting; if they don’t exactly stop you in your tracks, they slow your leap to certainties. The purpose of walking, he tells us, is not to find friends but to share solitude, “for solitude too can be shared, like bread and daylight”; the philosopher Kant’s life “was as exactly ruled as music manuscript paper”; when walking, the body “stops being in the landscape: it becomes the landscape.” And so on.

“It’s the mark of Cain, but it’s benign."
Gros’s larger theory of walking, abstracted from all the abstractions, is that there are three essential kinds. There is the root case of contemplative walking (what you do to clear your head). There is “cynical” walking (the term referring to the Cynics of ancient Greece, homeless hippies who scorned conventions, customs, clothes). And then there is the composite contemplative-cynic, the modern city walker (what is often called the “flâneur”). Gros’s thesis is that the three kinds, developed over time, can now coexist, although, no surprise, the commodifications of capitalism make that coexistence hard.

Contemplative walking is Gros’s favored kind: the walking of medieval pilgrims, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Henry David Thoreau, of Kant’s daily life. It is the Western equivalent of what Asians accomplish by sitting. Walking is the Western form of meditation: “You’re doing nothing when you walk, nothing but walking. But having nothing to do but walk makes it possible to recover the pure sensation of being, to rediscover the simple joy of existing, the joy that permeates the whole of childhood.” There’s a reason, Gros suggests, that a dominant school of philosophy in the ancient world, revived in the medieval, was called the “peripatetic.” In Raphael’s great fresco of assembled ancient philosophers, conventionally called “The School of Athens,” Plato and Aristotle are shown upright and in movement, peripatetic even when fixed in place by paint, advancing toward the other philosophers rather than enthroned above them. Movement and mind are linked in Western thought.

The Cynic philosophers of antiquity, in contrast, were often merely “circumambulant”—walking around and around the same few blocks in order to annoy other people. “All the commonplace compromises and conventions were booed, mocked, dragged through the mud,” Gros writes. “The Cynics’ philosophy is linked with the condition of the walker by far more than the superficial impression of rootlessness: the dimensions of experience inherent in those great peregrinations become dynamite when imported into towns.”

From these two begetters, contemplative country hikers and argumentative city schleppers, all other walking descends. The kind of modern city walking that we associate with the flâneur—the nineteenth-century city walking of Baudelaire and Manet, which Walter Benjamin later apotheosized—combines the contemplative walker’s escape from self-consciousness and inner noise with the Cynic’s attempted escape from social roles. The flâneur represents cynicism, but clothed and housed and only sporadically committed.

Gros’s horizons, though they contain some American writers (including, puzzlingly, Jack Kerouac, the echt American driver), are narrowly Parisian. He mentions none of the great New York walkers, from Walt Whitman to Alfred Kazin, let alone the striders in Madison Square Garden, nor does he quote any of the great New York walking books. Is there a peculiarly New York addition to the meanings of walking? Rereading the New York walkers, you find one note that eluded the cynic-contemplatives of Paris: in New York, walking, even without companions, can still be an expression of companionship, of expansive connection; a happy opening out to an enlarged civic self rather than a narrowing down to a contemplative inner one; a way of scooting toward the American Over-Soul, in sneakers.

It starts with Walt. Where the Parisian poet-walkers of his time walk to take it all apart, dissect the scene, find the skull beneath the street lamps, Whitman walks to get it all in, see what’s up, get the life of the city right. Walking in New York, Whitman says, leaves him “enrich’d of soul, you give me forever faces.” Whitman is always walking through the city. “Brooklyn of ample hills was mine,” he tells us of his walks, and “I too walk’d the streets of Manhattan island, and bathed in the waters around it,” which says something about the state of the waters then. Making his way down the streets, leaping into the Hudson: those are Whitman’s promenades. He seeks not a glimpse inside his own mind but connection: “Manhattan crowds, with their turbulent musical chorus! / Manhattan faces and eyes forever for me.” This makes him a man of buses and boats and bridges as much as of boulevards; his New York is as much Brooklyn as it is Manhattan. (And there’s his ferry, connecting them.)

Alfred Kazin, whose “A Walker in the City” (1951), heavily haunted by Whitman, remains the best book ever written about New York on foot, is all about going somewhere. Kazin uses walking as a metaphor for ambition and escape; his book is a study in how ambitious kids can ascend on foot when the provinces are just across the bridge. He was walking all the time because he was getting the hell out of Brooklyn and couldn’t afford a taxi. You could take the subway—Moss Hart, in “Act One,” writes of taking the subway—but Kazin prefers to walk, because the subway is one of the chief things he is escaping from. (When Hart escaped from Brooklyn, he took taxis, Broadway hits being more helpful in that line than Partisan Review pieces.)

As Whitman is walking through, Kazin is walking to and toward. He’s going somewhere with every step. (When he retreats back to Brooklyn, it is to see how far he’s gone.) If one were fanciful, one might say that the ghosts of the old Madison Square Garden walkers moved him—or, more bluntly, that the same cult of ambition and success that made Weston turn a small bar bet into a life’s career infects the dreams of the young writer. There’s no point in walking if you’re not getting ahead, even if the track you’re walking on turns out to be a perfect oval, taking you home.

Yet we find in both Whitman and Kazin a moment when the walker delights in the pure chance of walking in New York, what Kazin calls the walking that supplies “a happy, yet mostly vague and excited feeling.” Whatever else we walk to accomplish when we walk in New York, we always hope to randomize our too neatly gridded city existence. You go where your feet take you. Buses follow routes and subways have schedules, but someone on foot goes wherever he wants.

For a long time in the nineteen-eighties, I seemed to do nothing but walk around the city. I was blessed by several bits of new technology: by the first great age of the modern sneaker, for one, which allowed even the flat-footed to stride on what felt like cushioned air. And then the Walkman made every block your own movie. Just as the period of the first flâneurs falls between the rise of gas street lighting, which opened the city to twenty-four-hour circulation, and the onset of the automobile, which made cities loud again, so walking in the nineteen-eighties lay between the invention of the Walkman, which suddenly neutralized the noise of the automobile, and the onset of the iPhone, which replaced isolation-booth serenity with our now frantic forever-on-guardness.

You could walk anywhere. Saturday all day, Sunday all day, I’d tramp through the lower-Manhattan neighborhoods. The differences, architectural and social, among Tribeca and SoHo and the East Village, to name only contiguous areas, were distinct and vivid and nameable then: cast-iron buildings shading off into old egg- and paper-carton factories sweetly interrupted by small triangular parks, and edging over, as you walked east, into poor-law tenements that were just being reclaimed by painters. I would set off on a Saturday morning and walk all day, and achieve Kazin’s feeling of vague excitement, of unearned release, in a way that I have never felt before or since. SoHo in the eighties was the finest place for walking, not only architecturally beautiful but, by accident, still beautifully composed: illuminated sidewalks, glass orbs studding the iron paving to bring light to the basements below, still actually functioned, while the pioneering businesses were as chic and widely spaced as rocks in a Japanese garden—a single one-room restaurant with a cursive menu outside, a block of old businesses, a single charcuterie, a single deli for the whole neighborhood. At twilight, you walked, so to speak, from campfire to campfire, with inviting darkness in between.

Go back to SoHo now, and the streets seem stuffed, the glass sidewalks mostly paved over. There is little room to walk amid the shoppers. Walking for pleasure in cities is an occupation of the young. Only a very few older people of great vitality walk long in cities. What changes over time is not the city alone—some twentysomething is even now walking ample and hilly Brooklyn, and writing it down. What changes is us. We start walking outdoors to randomize our experience of the city, and then life comes in to randomize us. Children are the greatest of randomizers. They make walking unnecessary; we circle them to get the same effect of chance excitement. Their walking begins and ours ends.

People are made for walking, but we are not very good at it; our backs and arches, like querulous cabinet ministers, at first complain and then resign. Perhaps this is why the evolution of walking within a life falls into the same fated pattern as the old forgotten American sport. Like Weston, we begin peripatetic, walking where we will, then become circumambulant, walking around our kids or on an indoor track; we make a pass at a pilgrimage, like Dan O’Leary in Ireland, fail, and end up immobile. Footsore, we sit down and stay there. And then even our cells begin to go random on us, producing small failures of replication that mark our skin. Eventually, we leave the room feet first, hoping only to be remembered in someone else’s head, or by someone else’s hand. Without something happening in that higher human register where things are thrown, and thought, walking is strictly for the birds."

Frédéric Gros: Why going for a walk is the best way to free your mind

Walking is ‘life scoured bare’, says Frédéric Gros, a way of
‘experiencing the real’. Photograph by Rannjan Joawn

Some of the finest thinkers in history were also enthusiastic walkers. In his surprise bestseller, Frédéric Gros uses philosophy to show how walking can bring about a sense of peace. So why is he so conflicted about life?

"It is a sunny spring Sunday and – joy! – I am off to Paris to go for a walk. Not any old walk, but a walk with a man who really knows about walking: Frédéric Gros, a professor of walking. A philosopher of walking.
    A Philosophy of Walking
  1. by Frederic Gros
  1. Tell us what you think:Star-rate and review this book
Strictly speaking, he's actually a professor of philosophy who writes about walking, but this is nitpicking. What do I care? I love walking. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than walking uphill, for hours, in order to sleep under some flimsy piece of nylon fabric and then do it all again the next day.
This particular walk is not up a mountain, it's in the Bois de Vincennes, Paris's largest green space, but still. I am looking forward to a lungful of fresh air and the kind of insightful aperçusthat possibly are available only to a Frenchman with a secure academic position and a command of one of the more expressive Latinate languages.
Walking is not sport, he says, in the first line of his book, A Philosophy of Walking. Sport is a discipline, "an ethic, a labour". It is a performance. Walking, on the other hand, "is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found". If you want to go faster, he says, don't walk. Do something else: drive, slide, fly.
I am looking forward to going more slowly. Though I am worried about my footwear. I am wearing Nike trainers. Are they too sporting? Gros seems as if he might be more of a leather brogues sort of man. He makes a jibe at those who try to commodify walking and sell it back to us as "trekking". Who insist on "incredible socks". And special trousers with too many pockets.
My trousers have the usual number of pockets. And reading his book has made me long to be in a wild place with nothing to do but walk. I want to discuss the observations from his book: that walking is an escape from the idea of identity; that there is a kind of serenity that comes with simply following a path; that walking is a form of pure living.
This is the plan, though the first indication that things may not go exactly as I imagine comes as I wait in line for the Eurostar. Ping! An email lands in my inbox: "Carole, could you send me some questions you will ask before we meet? If I could prepare some, I would be less stressed."
Stressed? This doesn't seem right. Gros's book, a surprise bestseller in France, talks of walking as a form of "life scoured bare"; as a way of "experiencing the real". Its pages are filled with calm reflections on the joys of moving slowly. He just doesn't sound as if he should be the stressy type.
"It is the English," he says when I finally meet him in a cafe opposite the Bois de Vincennes. He has a sheaf of printed out pages – answers to questions I sent him earlier, a glass of rosé on the go ("I am nervous. Coffee will not help") and an amused PhD student who he's brought along for what he calls "translation help", though I suspect "moral support" may be closer to the mark.
Don't be stressed, I tell him. I loved the book. It's an examination of the philosophy of various thinkers for whom walking was central to their work – NietzscheRimbaudKantRousseauThoreau (they're all men; it's unclear if women don't walk or don't think) – and Gros's own thoughts on the subject. It's a passionate affirmation of the simple life, and joy in simple things. And it's beautifully written: clear, simple, precise; the opposite of most academic writing. But, when I say this to Gros, he waves his hand. "I think it is probably the translation. I don't think it was so well written in French." And he takes a nervous swig of his rosé.
Why are you nervous, I ask. You must have done interviews before. "They were in French," he says. "And also… Um… I'm not so sure I am interesting."
It seems Gros hasn't got to grips with playing the sort of media-academic demi-god that these situations require. He's one of the world's leading authorities on Foucault, and later Arianna, his PhD student, lets slip that he became a full professor at 30, which is practically unheard of, especially in the arts. And he has the sort of looks – tall, dark, Gallic – that could easily lend themselves to playing the older love interest in a TV medical drama. But there he is, nervously glugging his wine and looking across the table at me in a state of mild terror.
The cafe is noisy, and we decide to head out on our walk. I am desperate to deflect him from his pages of carefully prepared answers, and I figure interviewing him on the hoof might be the best way. But the Bois is busy. The Sunday strollers are out in force.
"This is the problem with walking in the city," says Gros. There are clouds of midges and gaggles of children and we end up circling a small patch of scrubby ground with overflowing litter bins. "I like to walk for several hours," he says. "But in Paris…" We end up retreating to a bench.
As a philosopher, his interest is in "ordinary things", he says. In Britain, academic philosophy is, largely, analytical philosophy. It's concerned with logic, with language. Whereas in France, he belongs to "a new generation that is concerned with the… quotidien. The everyday."
And you see the philosophy of walking as part of the philosophy of the everyday?
"Yes. It is still looking at the questions of eternity, solitude, time and space… But on the basis of experience. On the basis of very simple, very ordinary things."
He'd always enjoyed walking but it was only when he started his philosophical studies that Gros started noticing how many great philosophers were also great walkers. "That is, it was not just that walking was a distraction from their work. It was that walking was really their element. It was the condition of their work."
And it was from this that he started to think about a book. Each philosopher leads to a reflection on different subjects. So Rimbaud is the starting point for Gros's thoughts on escape. Nerval on melancholy. Rousseau, who claimed to be unable to work, or even think, when not walking, on the idea of being in a state of nature. And, my favourite, Thoreau, the author of the first philosophical treatise on walking, whose writing Gros quotes on simplicity and frugality and wilderness and the difference between profit and benefit.
Walking is of no profit, it is only benefit, he says. Though the best quote of his is about when considering any course of action, one should ask: could someone do it in my place? And if the answer is yes, give it up.
"Yes. You can be replaced at your work, but not for your walk. Living, in the deepest sense, is something that no one else can do for us."
Walking, says Gros, is "exploring the mystery of presence. Presence to the world, to others and to yourself... You discover when you walk that it emancipates you from space and time, from… vitesse."
"Yes, speediness. It emancipates you from speediness. And Rousseau says in his Confessions, when you walk all is possible. Your future is as open as the sky in front of you. And if you walk several hours, you can escape your identity. There is a moment when you walk several hours that you are only a body walking. Only that. You are nobody. You have no history. You have no identity. You have no past. You have no future. You are only a body walking."

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
The 18th-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau claimed to be unable to work, or even think, when not walking. Photograph: Roger-Viollet/Rex Features
It's the kind of observation that, possibly, works better with a French accent. But I buy it. I love everything about walking. The meditative state that it induces. The dog tiredness at the end of the day. The simply being in beauty. Or, as Gros would have it: "The sedimentation of the presence of the landscape in your body."
Is there a school of philosophy that thinks that walking is not a fit subject to study? "Yes! Yes, I do not think my colleagues would consider this a serious academic book. It is too transparent.
"And I tried to evoke some very serious philosophers such as Nietzsche but the questions I wanted to ask were not, 'What is the soul?' or, 'What is the relation between body and space?'
"My questions were, 'Where have they walked?' 'How have they walked?' 'How many hours per day have they walked?' I tried to see if their style of walking could be a manifestation of their thought. So, for example, you have Kant with his stroll. Every day the same stroll. The same time, the same place…"
He comes across as a very boring man.
"He is!"
Does that also come through in his philosophy?
"We can say that there is a discipline at the forefront of it, yes."
Nietzsche, on the other hand, is very unboring. He was the first philosopher Gros discovered. And the one who persuaded him to study philosophy.
What prompted you to start reading Nietzsche? Were you a teenager?
Were you a depressed teenager?
What effect did Nietzsche have?
"There is an energy in Nietzsche's works and this helped me. You have the same energy in the act of walking. You need energy when you have to walk for several hours."
Have there been points in your life where you've found walking helpful to your mental state?
"Absolutely. There is an element of repetition in the act of walking where you can forget. And there is a tiredness. A peacefulness. I think that when you are really alone you have a fragility. The feelings are more intense. You have more of the feeling of the eternity of things. There are moments of vibration between your own body and the landscape."
You're sounding like a hippy now, Frédéric, I say.
"I am!"
Now the Earth is vibrating.
"You are right!"
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. I love the bit in the book where he writes about the act of packing a rucksack and the perpetual question that you find yourself asking. "Is it necessary?" On my last hiking trip, I tell him, I weighed my T-shirts to find the lightest ones. I weighed my knickers. I sawed my toothbrush in half with a bread knife. (I admit it: this was a step too far.) But thinking about putting something in a rucksack and schlepping it up a mountain on your back is quite a good test for thinking about whether you really do actually need something, isn't it, I say?
"It is."
Do you manage it? Does that lesson come through when you're at Ikea?
"I try to have that same mental attitude every day. But it is difficult. The problem is that I…"
"No, I don't forget. I lie. I say, 'Oh yes, this is very necessary?'"
What? Like a sports car? You say, 'Yes, it's essential. I need that Ferrari?'
"Not a sports car but… Other things."
One of the things that comes across most strongly in the book is a sense of escape. The freedom of leaving things behind. It sounds as if an academic philosophy department is a place to get away from. Is that true?
"Quoi?" He looks confused and then Arianna, the PhD student, translates and they nearly fall off the bench laughing.
"Yes! I'm not sure you have to write this. But I have a serious problem with academics. I think that I have imposter syndrome. I feel myself an imposter in philosophy. I think this book about walking is the first way to discover it. I'm writing another book about disobeying. I think there is a link between walking and disobedience. I am writing about disobedience and preparing myself to disobey."
Disobey what?
To leave it?
"If I have the courage, yes."
Gros didn't set out to become an academic. He went to Mexico City for two years and taught French. "And then I came back and I tried to find some interesting things in my own life… But I didn't know any! Nothing. It is very embarrassing for me."
So you thought you'd read about the interesting lives of others?
"Yes. When I tried to write this book I wrote chapters about these elders because I think their lives are interesting. If my life were interesting, I think I wouldn't have to write. If you write, it's because your life isn't important." He looks at me embarrassed. "Maybe it is different for you?"

KANT, Immanuel - portrait.  Philosopher, born in Konigsberg, Germany. (1724-1804). Colourised
Immanuel Kant took the same stroll at the same time every day. His route through the park in Königsberg, Prussia (now Russia), later came to be called 'The Philosopher’s Walk'. Photograph: Alamy
I enjoy meeting people who are more interesting than me, I tell him. And then I ask him about the apogee of his book, his definitive walking experience, when he talks about how, in the mountains of the Cévennes, his favourite spot, in a period of fine weather, he simply abandoned his rucksack. He spent two days walking, alone, carrying absolutely nothing.
"It was this feeling of lightness. This fragility. There is nothing between you and nature."
Except being a bit hungry?
"A bit."
There is a quote from Thoreau in the book, where he says that it is not the tyranny of public opinion that traps us. Instead, we are shackled by our own judgments of ourselves. Do you believe that?
"I do."
So what is the judgment that you have of yourself that shackles you?
"This is difficult. Yes, yes. No, no, no. Just one moment. I have a judgment. Yes…"
And he rolls his eyes and for a long minute he just stares into space and thinks. Arianna and I sit and watch him.
"No, no, no, I am thinking."
We wait for another long minute. This is great, I say. I interview lots and lots of people and they very rarely ever think before giving an answer. I think this may be a first.
"It is a terrible question."
"It is a terrible question. But you're a philosopher, Frédéric. You're supposed to be thinking about this stuff. It's your job."
"Yes, it is my job. So… Yes, the problem for me is that the books I have written have allowed me to learn to know, but the problem is what they have masked. You see. I know that the books I have written allow me to learn lots of things. But they have masked the problems."
You mean that they have masked your real thoughts or feelings? Or they have masked you from living life.
"Yes. From living. From living life."
So, do you think that you personally would have been better off going for a walk than writing a book about walking?
"Yes… But… I had not sufficient courage."
Oh dear! Maybe you need to go for a really big walk. Three months or something. Is that something you'd like to do?
"Yes. Of course. But life is… complicated."
Isn't that the thing, I say – that there are probably a lot of people who will read the book and say, 'Oh, it's all very well to talk about communing with nature, but I've got three kids and a mortgage and a wife.'
"Yes, and me, too."
In fact he has two children, now teenagers, and "they used to love to walk. I tried to teach them the joie de la marche. They walked seven, eight, nine hours. I led them everywhere. But now… they refuse."
They will come back to it, I say. But then I've started saying all manner of comforting things to the philosopher of walking, including telling him that he needs to go for a walk. "Are you going somewhere nice this summer?"
"No. I don't think. No."
Maybe walking can be a state of mind in your head, I suggest. Maybe the idea of going for a walk can be as powerful as actually going for a walk?
"No, no, no. I think that the act of walking… stays essential."
He has started to look depressed. So, you don't manage to walk much on a day-to-day basis? He shakes his head. Maybe you ought to get a dog, I say. Then you have to walk even on a wet Tuesday in February.
We sit in silence for a bit.
So, Frédéric, you've written a whole book about the simple life and joy of walking because your life is too complicated to actually go walking? Is this what happened?
"Yes… But it is more complicated than that."
We finish the interview and go and drink wine. Gros looks done in. Arianna looks amused.
"You see," he says. "I was right to be nervous! French journalists do not ask these sort of questions. I… feel maybe I have a crise tomorrow."
Oh dear. I hope not. Just read your book, I tell him. Go for a walk. Disobey."