Almost all of us walk somewhere every day of our lives. According to the UK’s most recent National Travel Survey 22% of all trips are undertaken on foot – and walking continues to be the second-most important form of transport for all journeys after travel by car or van.
For short trips of less than a mile, walking is totally dominant accounting for over 78% of all such travel. One third of all trips less than five miles in length are also on foot.
By contrast, cycling accounts for just 1.5% of all journeys. Even if we only look at all trips under five miles, cycling still makes up less than 2% of journeys.
But you wouldn’t get this impression from listening to politicians, reading policy documents, or observing investment in infrastructure. While both cycling and walking improve personal health and the environment, one gets far more attention than the other. The government has just released its response to a major consultation on its “vision for cycling and walking”, for instance. The document’s name? Cycling Delivery Plan.
Although walking is given some consideration in the detail of the document, the priority is clear. While cycling is being actively promoted as a healthy and sustainable form of urban transport, walking remains largely neglected in terms of active policy and investment.
Look at London’s “cycle superhighways”, for instance, announced earlier this year to much fanfare. These highways follow significant increases in trips by bike in central London following investment in new infrastructure promoted by the London mayor.
Such investment is of course welcome and long overdue, and much remains to be done as cycle infrastructure remains poor in most other parts of the country. But the fact cycling is beginning to be considered an important form of urban transport that needs to be planned for highlights the fact that travel on foot is not given such recognition.
It can, of course, be argued that pedestrians do already have their own dedicated infrastructure – in urban areas at least – in the form of pavements, pedestrian zones, and crossings. For the most part we accept these conditions as adequate and do not question how they might be better, however a closer look suggests that this is rarely the case.
In most locations, road space continues to be dominated by, and planned for, motor vehicles and people on foot are crammed on to pavements that are often too narrow. Pedestrians are made to wait for long periods to cross busy roads, exposed to traffic noise and emissions, and then given insufficient time to cross before the lights change to keep the traffic moving.
Poorly placed (and often unnecessary) street furniture, together with inconsiderately (and potentially illegally) parked cars often obstruct the pavement, while pedestrian surfaces are often poorly maintained and rarely cleared of leaves or snow and ice. Try to negotiate the average urban pavement with a child’s buggy or in a wheelchair and the difficulties become all too obvious. Poor pedestrian infrastructure disadvantages all those who do not have access to, or choose not to use, a motor vehicle.
Sleepwalking into car cities
We’ve got into this situation because walking is taken for granted. Such a simple activity has been largely ignored in the planning process; it is seen as making few demands on the environment and thus needs only a minimum of facilities. In contrast, because motor vehicles make much greater demands on the environment their needs have been prioritised.
Pedestrians also suffer from being classed as “walkers” – those who walk for pleasure rather than as a means of transport. The cultural dominance and convenience of the motor vehicle has meant that urban space has been disproportionately allocated towards cars and away from pedestrians. When walking for anything other than recreation is increasingly seen as abnormal, cars will always win.
I recently headed some research in four English cities which clearly demonstrated this. As one respondent in Leeds said “you feel unusual walking”. Most respondents enjoyed walking, and did walk sometimes, but they frequently encountered unnecessary difficulties and inconveniences. The problem was summarised neatly by a Lancaster respondent: “That road is awful, the pavement is very narrow, and in autumn it’s covered in leaves so you slip over half the time, it’s terrifying. But by car the road is fine”.
Walking is a cheap, simple, healthy and environmentally friendly way of travelling short distances. It is something most people enjoy doing, but our cities are built in ways that often make life difficult and unpleasant for pedestrians.
Walking needs to be taken more seriously as a means of transport (and not only as a form of exercise or leisure) – and should be actively planned for and given priority, as is beginning to happen with cycling. If more people walked and fewer people drove, it would not only benefit personal health but also cities would be more pleasant for all.
Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.
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Author: Colin Pooley is an Emeritus Professor of Social and Historical Geography at Lancaster University.
Image: Pedestrians walk in Minneapolis, Minnesota. REUTERS/Craig Lassig