To say that people in Los Angeles don’t really walk much is a bit of an understatement. Despite our proclivity for hiking trails, most Angelenos rack up the majority of their Fitbit steps walking to and from their car. The recent push for a more comprehensive public transportation network is on track to change that as more subway and bus stops pop up around the region. Walking a few blocks to and from the station is a small (and health-conscious) price to pay for a gridlock-free work commute. But that plan still has a century of car culture economics to overcome, so we’re still a ways off from becoming a wet coast NYC.
One man, Chuck McCarthy, has clearly taken note of this emerging ambulatory market. Pedestrians in LA’s Los Feliz neighborhood might notice a few DIY flyers around advertising McCarthy’s new business, The People Walker.
“Need motivation to walk? Scared to walk alone at night?” These are just a few of the questions the flyers throw at potential clients who might be up for the $7-per-mile walks Chuck and his cohorts offer.
I needed neither of those things, but I was as stuck by the business concept as I was by McCarthy’s hirsute mountain man look, so I decided to give his service a shot for myself.
I messaged the company’s Facebook page asking to take advantage of the free-2-miles-for-first-timers promo the flyer had promised. Before I knew it, I was all set up for a brisk Sunday morning walk with Alexandra, one of McCarthy’s new hires.
Alexandria and I met up at a predetermined landmark and it was immediately clear that we were both entering into uncharted territory. She was wearing her official The People Walker uniform (a white tee with the company name Sharpie’d on by McCarthy himself) and I, not expecting to break too much of a sweat, jeans and a t-shirt.
“Do you mind signing this?” Alexandra asked me, before handing over a hand-written release form absolving her and The People Walker of any responsibility should I have broken my leg or got hit by a bus on our trek. This form wasn’t company policy, she explained, but previous freelance stints as yoga instructor had taught her to cover her ass, even if the company hadn’t yet thought to.
Alexandra admitted that this was her first walk with a client, though she had been in my shoes as a walkee just a month prior. She explained that walking had pretty much been her sole form of exercise for the past decade, so if she was going to be doing these circuits anyway, why not get paid for it if the market is there?
As we wound our way around the idyllic residential streets of LA’s Koreatown neighborhood, we chatted about where we were from, what we do for work, food, and all the other casual conversation topics one might have while sipping a beer with a stranger at a party. We even got so bold as to delve into income inequality and Universal Basic Income at one point.
Alexandra, like many Millennials, was taking on this walking gig as another another square in the patchwork quilt of making ends meet. $7 a mile isn’t enough to live off of, but it could fill in the gaps each month if she built up a decent client base for herself. Having participated in the sharing economy myself, I empathized with her hustle.
As with any gig economy business, The People Walker is not without some icky grey areas when it comes to wages. I inquired as to how the company was handling these first-timer promo walks and was shocked to learn that McCarthy expected Alexandria and other “independent contractors” to just eat the lost wages. While I understand The People Walker is not a Silicon Valley and VC backed start-up, it still left a bad taste in my mouth to learn of this news. A promotion isn’t a promotion if it’s coming at the expense of your worker base whether you’re Uber or just a little half-joke company with a founder that looks like Hurley from Lost.
Alexandra didn’t seem too put off by it, so I pulled back on my champion-of-the-proletariat rhetoric and we finished our walk, ending just past the 2-mile mark. Not wanting to have completely wasted her time, I offered to buy her a coffee for her troubles. She accepted and we chatted a bit more as we sipped our drinks.
I hope the company takes off, not just for the folks who need a bit of manageable exercise, but for all the Alexandras out there in need of a little extra scratch. I can see it succeeding with its made-for-virality mission statement and founder.
It’s not for everyone, though. I don’t know if I’d ever personally feel compelled to pay a stranger to chaperone me about town as I’m much happier alone or on my phone in those moments of on-foot travel. But the company is growing by leaps and bounds so clearly some people are fine with that.
More importantly, The People Walker is a Trojan horse of an idea. On the surface, it’s a fringe health and transportation service. But, if the typical walks are anything like the one I had with Alexandra, where conversation flowed freely and neither party was creepy (as is too often the case with the likes of Uber and Lyft), The People Walker might just be a stealth route towards friendship.
Just be sure to pay your walkers, McCarthy.
Photos by Justin Caffier