What encourages Londoners to walk? Given the present higher focus on active travel this seems to me to be a question which matters. Public Health England is concerned about the current and growing levels of obesity across the whole country and says that walking is a good form of exercise. So how can more walking be encouraged here in the capital?
A personal and formative experience came when my residential street in Hackney was included in a Controlled Parking Zone. As part of this, dropped kerbs were introduced at junctions, making it much easier to cross the street with a pushchair or wheeled suitcase. Junctions were also protected from parked cars by double yellow lines. These made it easier for pedestrians to see oncoming traffic and for road-users to see them, even if they were small eight or ten-year-olds.
Thinning out the parking and prioritising residents, together with the dropped kerbs and the improved sight lines, immediately, if subliminally, enhanced the experience of walking in the neighbourhood. One could simply relax and enjoy it more.
The Council also pursued the following policies:
- Asking residents to cut back their overgrown hedges (even pretty ones encroach over the footway, narrowing the space for walking)
- Removing much pavement parking (some replaced by street trees).
- Replacing dysfunctional lighting columns and making sure all streetlights worked (relying in many cases on residents to report streetlights which have failed – a practice which continues).
- Systematically renewing street nameplates on street corners.
- Systematically renewing footways on residential streets, which reduced any risk of tripping and made the place look better.
- Reviewing junctions and removing pedestrian guardrails.
- Widening footways, particularly in commercial centres.
Quietly becoming the first borough to introduce self-enforcing 20 mph speed limits.
Not all of these measures seem tailored to encourage walking, but they have that effect because pursuing that goal is not simply a matter of making it more possible to put one foot in front of the other.
Removing obstructions to walking, preserving wide and continuous footways, making sure people can see and be seen (including at night), and be confident about finding their way, and keeping speeds low all reduce anxiety and make areas more pleasant to be in, to linger in, even without explicit “public realm improvements”. Among the latter are benches (important for older people so they can take breaks during their walks), tree planting and other urban design features.
The 2011 census shows that walking trips (to work) in Hackney almost doubled in 10 years, from 7,811 to 13,187, which was the highest percentage growth in London.
Contrast the philosophy behind Hackney’s 2002-2011 measures with those now being adopted elsewhere in London, where the priority is to shoehorn in cycle tracks, with kerbs, wands, rubber blocks and other associated paraphernalia that clutter and degrade the public realm. Measures like these result in:
- Increased pedestrian anxiety when crossing bi-directional cycle tracks.
- Pedestrians having to walk out of their way to get to those crossings or perch on narrow kerbs if trying to cross at their desire line.
- People on foot being surprised by fast-moving cyclists passing close to them (cycling speeds in London are high).
- Pavements being narrowed in order to fit these tracks in – often now too narrow to walk two abreast – and running the tracks, doglegged, behind the back of bus stops.
- Having to cross cycle tracks in order to perch on the narrow bus stops which remain from which to board buses.
- Trip hazards (kerbs, rubber blocks, etc.) being introduced into and along the carriageway. If encouraging walking were the objective, these would be minimised.
All of these introduce stress rather than relaxation and make walking more unpleasant. It seems as though much of London government, despite its rhetoric, does not regard walking as a mode of active travel that is worthy of nurturing. Is there any rigorous research saying that cycling is a better form of exercise and a more important form of active travel than walking? I’ve certainly not seen Public Health England make that claim.