Walking is en vogue. We hear a lot about the health, social and economic benefits of creating walkable communities. But for all the talk of improving conditions for pedestrians, the effort and resource invested in walking is generally tiny in comparison to other modes. In November, Jack Short, Secretary General of the International Transport Forum, addressed the Walk21 conference in The Hague. In his blog, he reflected on why walking was ‘The Forgotten Mode’, observing that in his “25 years of organising ministerial meetings the topic of walking has never been on the agenda.  The simplest, most sustainable and cheapest means of locomotion has been mostly ignored – despite the fact that all trips begin or end on foot.”
As Jack Short rightly observes that “published data hardly ever include walking, resulting in its exclusion from analysis and policy discourse”. In essence the old mantra still applies: “What doesn’t count, isn’t counted. And what isn’t counted, doesn’t count”. In actual fact, recent evidence suggests that the average urban dweller in the UK spends at least as much time walking as they do in their car. Yet both travel surveys and physical activity surveys typically under-record walking activity, by around 50% in some cases. Colin Buchanan has worked with Walk21 to improve data on walking, for example through the Making Walking Count cities benchmarking initiative.
So what do we really know about the invisible mode of walking? Well for a start, it might sound silly, but try to come up with a definition of a pedestrian. Is a child playing on a street a pedestrian (it wasn’t that long ago that children did play on streets in this country)? Does taking a walk in the park make me a pedestrian? Or do pedestrians have to be walking to a destination, or preferably to another mode of transport as the Department for Transport appears to believe. These questions may seem a little theoretical but decisions on public expenditure are made on the basis of these definitions.
How many times do you hear that familiar phrase “walking and cycling”? The two seemingly inseparable modes share the fact that participants undertake physical activity and that they do not require the burning of fossil fuels. But that is where the similarity ends. Walking is something that almost everybody does and all journeys involve some walking, even if it is just from the front door to the car. But for all the good efforts of the transport planning professions, cycling remains a minority activity in most parts of the UK.
Yet when it comes to promoting sustainable travel, why is it that cycling tends to steal the show? In a way, the current lack of cycling plays to its favour. There are tangible projects that can be targeted to defined potential user segments. For example, secure cycle parking and lockers can be provided at workplaces, or cycle training provided to schoolchildren. The success of both of these projects can also be easily measured and evaluated.
Why doesn’t the same apply to walking? It is difficult to target investment at a mode of travel that is widely used but largely invisible in transport policy and analysis. In order to achieve a genuine shift to walking as a mode of transport, a holistic approach is required involving several streams of work:
- Planning: Despite the recent advances in accessibility planning techniques, very few authorities have been able to adopt a strategic approach to planning for well-connected, walkable neighbourhoods. While Design and Access Statements have increased the prominence of walking access for new developments, good intentions often fail at detailed design stage due to a lack of suitable tools to make the case.
- Design and maintenance: In recent years design guidance, including the Manual for Streets and many local Streetscape documents, have stressed the need to improve conditions for pedestrians. The lessons of high profile schemes have demonstrated that we can design more walkable streets. In times of public sector funding constraints, a joined-up approach is required to rolling out public realm enhancements maximising the opportunities arising from new developments, regular maintenance and community initiatives (e.g. Sustrans DIY Streets).
- Information, promotion and education: The culture of walking has been largely lost in many parts of the UK. Targeted campaigns in schools, workplaces or with older persons aim to re-introduce people to the habit of walking. And perceptions can be changed through information and promotional campaigns. Pedestrians remain vulnerable road users and therefore mode shift cannot occur without road safety education and enforcement to create an enhanced sense of civility in our streets and public spaces.
This month the Department for Transport issued its guidance on applying for the Local Sustainable Transport Fund. What part will walking play in the funding submissions? Walking is central to all sustainable transport proposals and this is a genuine opportunity for local authorities to focus on make walking visible.