May is National Walking Month as promoted by Living Streets, the major pedestrian charity and advocacy group. To celebrate, there are challenges and competitions to walk to school or walk to work or just walk anywhere for 20 minutes a day. There are led leisure walks and plenty of promotional material available in cities, towns and rural areas throughout the UK. With enough summer weather like we had over the weekend, it shouldn’t be too hard a sell. Yet if you think about it, it is odd that it needs to be sold at all.
Almost everyone walks, at least a little. It’s the oldest form of transport there is; walking upright was one of the characteristics that defined early humanoids.
Almost everyone can do it – old, young, unfit, unfamiliar with the roads, with assistance, with friends. It’s the most universally available form of transport, requiring neither money nor license nor necessarily any special infrastructure.
Yet in the Government’s new Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, which is out for consultation until 23 May 2016, the key objective for walking is “to reverse [its] decline”. It is hard to argue with the graph that shows a downward trend in the number of walking stages per person per year. Equally difficult to refute another graph showing the percentage of primary school children who walk to school fluctuating in a falling direction for over a decade, thus the second pedestrian-based objective to “increase” that percentage. However, these objectives are too pessimistic.
Why? Because the old ten-toe express is at least as on trend for 21st century transport as other topics I’ve written about recently, including bikeshare, virtual transport, and fleets of shared, autonomous, electric cars. ‘Walkability’ is in. Sprawl and car-dependency is out. Although it is not always possible to commute by foot, people now want to live where they can walk to shops, services and leisure activities. In terms of commute length, time spent walking is good for you, time spent driving isn’t. There are all the well-known benefits of walking, which you will often hear and see promoted by Living Streets and likeminded organisations and individuals: public health, zero emissions, social inclusion. And then there are the economic benefits.
Research in the United States, long a car-loving society, has shown that the most walkable places are now also the most desirable places to live and work. Local economies in such neighbourhoods, whether built in the 21st or the 19th centuries are thriving and surpassing their 20th century car-oriented counterparts. The issue is that there aren’t enough of them to go around, raising concerns about gentrification, displacement and inequality.
The same concerns could be raised in relation to the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy’s uniquely specific objective on walking to primary school. Are there enough good primary school places in the right locations for all children (or at least an ambitious percentage of 75% or so) to be able to walk to school?
Uninspiring objectives do not cause problems, but nor do they motivate anyone to find solutions. There is a latent demand within today’s populations to walk more. It would be best served by more positive objectives and ambitious targets with lists of cross-tier, cross-sector actions and dedicated funding to match. There are lists of actions and funding sources in the Strategy, incidentally, but I’ll leave you to judge them yourself. In the discipline of transport planning, ‘predict and provide’ was long the methodology used to justify infrastructure to serve new developments and existing demand. For car travel. Maybe it’s time to apply those tools to foot travel instead?
In a globalised world, people live their international lives through a little long-distance travel and a lot of virtual platforms. Is it any surprise that they like to live their physical life locally? Technology, current affairs, climate change – the world’s moving fast enough. Why not go slow in our own neighbourhoods so we can take it in? Do you currently practice or wish you could join the transport trend of walking?
[See original blog written on this theme for The Planner magazine: The School Run Walk]