Live Local, Go Slow, Walk

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]

 

Were you Walking?

We are less than a week into November, and it seems everyone is feeling the imminence of winter. The early darkness is closing in, never mind the fog, the swirls of falling leaves, the perpetual muddy puddles that we dare not step in, even in wellies, for fear they are much deeper than they look. So you might be forgiven for having already forgotten October, when we had lovely days of Autumn sunshine. Days which you hopefully enjoyed by walking outside as much as possible.

Why?

There are a multitude of benefits of walking that always apply: physical health, mental health, social interaction, reducing your environmental impact, getting closer to your community. But there were other reasons to celebrate walking in October.

Namely, it was International Walk to School Month. Or, here in the UK, Walk to School 3½ Weeks, as the schools were shut for half term the last week of the month. Still, depending on inset closures, there were 15-17 days to see your offspring put their feet and those expensive shoes to good use every morning and afternoon.

I did. I walk my four-year-old to her reception class most days, with her baby brother in the pushchair. Not all days, admittedly, as I occasionally drive part-way if I am due elsewhere or it is pouring, and there were a couple of daddy-daughter drop-off specials (also on foot). Living Streets asked what we love most about the walk to school. I said the challenge of meeting my daughter’s demands for made-up fairy stories at any opportunity: brain wake-up call! I also enjoy being able to chat with other mums going the same direction, stop off at more than one shop without having to return to or move the car, racking up steps on my FitBit, and making sure the little one gets an airing. No stale babies!

Then, as if the month-long celebration of walking needed a climax, my Twitter feed told me there was a massive #WalkingSummit in the USA on the 30th of October and the US Surgeon General was marketing its #StepItUp campaign with an excellent video. It made me proud to see that the simple act of walking is on the agenda in the country of my birth, a country that is too well-known for its love affair with the automobile and its love of sitting on its collective backside.

So now we are in November, do we know the outcomes of all this eventful excitement?

We know that even if calculated by only the longest segment of a given journey, walking is the second most common way of getting to and from places in the UK. Living Streets reports that only 46% of children walk to school now, whereas 70% did a generation ago. However, from what I could tell, we don’t know if more children walked to school last month than did in September. We don’t know if more will walk this month and in future following participation last month. We don’t even have consistent annual reporting of usual mode of travel to school since the indicator was made non-mandatory under the last Parliament’s reduction of red tape.

So maybe the events have had no impact? Yet walking is consistently under-appreciated and under-reported. Therefore, there is no such thing as over-emphasising the benefits of walking to us and our society. The more events and promotions like the ones last month, the better. We should simply monitor more as well, so we can better justify spending more money on promotion in the future. And more money on infrastructure, for the more we can design places for pedestrians, the better. Especially for child pedestrians.

Children need even more physical activity to stay healthy than adults do. NHS guidelines recommend 60 minutes a day for school-age children, compared to 150 minutes a week for adults. In these darkening days, they are ever less likely to get the activity they need without walking to and from school. So, if you can think back to before the clocks changed, were you walking in October? And will you keep walking, even through the winter?