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Getting serious about walking

Given Active Travel England's recent focus on walking, wheeling and cycling – in that order – the Walking and Cycling Innovations conference in Manchester on 14 November will take a close look at pedestrian policy

Juliana O'Rourke
26 October 2023
Continuous footways make walking much easier and safer. Credit Camden Cyclists, CC
Continuous footways make walking much easier and safer. Credit Camden Cyclists, CC
Poor surfaces and clutter can make walking and wheeling more difficult
Poor surfaces and clutter can make walking and wheeling more difficult


Given Active Travel England's recent focus on walking, wheeling and cycling – in that order – the popular Walking and Cycling Innovations conference in Manchester on 14 November brings together a panel of the UK's walking experts to focus on how to get more people walking, more often, and with more confidence.

The ability for anyone, anywhere to take walking trips, both as transport (getting to work, school or the shops, or to access public transport) or for health, recreation and wellbeing (walking a dog, walking for exercise, walking in green spaces or window shopping), should, in my opinion, be a basic human right.

After all, most of us walk or wheel on most days. And it should be easy and relatively cheap to provide for an activity that most of us do every day.

Yet walking infrastructure is frequently either poor or downright dangerous – pavement parking, pavements that simply end with nowhere for pedestrians to go except across busy roads, crossings that prioritse motor traffic, lack of continuous footways on side roads, cycle priority at bus stop bypasses, A-board advertising on the pavement, unused phone boxes, EV charge points and overgrown hedges blocking pathways – the list goes on.

Charity Living Streets has recently suggested that, with a rise in electric vehicles, e-scooters and e-bikes, there should be a commitment from councils that charging points and cycle storage will be placed on the carriageway and not on the pavements, unless there is at least 1.5 metres clearance left for people walking and wheeling.

It has also given a renewed push to its campaign to call for an end to pavement parking. Says Living Streets: "22 November 2023 marks the third anniversary of the close of the Department for Transport’s pavement parking consultation – that's 1,095 days of waiting for a response and action on a vital issue."

Walking and wellbeing?

Yet as the UK faces a looming heath and wellbeing crisis, new studies suggest that going for a brisk walk for just 22 minutes once a day may be enough to offset the negative health effects of sitting too much. Numerous clinical studies and experiments have shown that walking has many physical and mental benefits.

The proportion of UK adults who are overweight or obese increased from 52.9 per cent in 1993 to 64.3 per cent in 2022, according to the NHS. Scientists also predict that dementia cases will be up to 42 per cent higher in 2040 than current estimates show and they believe that rising obesity rates could be largely to blame for the greater-than-expected forecast – although this has yet to be confirmed.

With regards to road safety, in 2022, 385 pedestrians were killed in Great Britain, whilst 5,901 were reported to be seriously injured and 13,041 slightly injured. Recent news stories attest to children killed on pavements or planned crossings by car drivers. These shocking figures sit alongside new data from the Department for Transport that reports a sharp rise in the number of road deaths in Britain. The latest report from DfT showed that there was an 8.7% increase in 2022, compared to the previous year.

Last week, The Guardian reported about the impact of pedestrian deaths and assaults on traffic wardens in Birmingham: "Over the summer six cyclists and pedestrians were killed in Birmingham by drivers in separate incidents, including a police officer walking to work and a 12-year-old boy riding his bike near home. In many cases the car drivers fled the scene," it says.

Adam Tranter, the cycling and walking commissioner for Andy Street, the mayor of the West Midlands, told the paper: "Dangerous driving and reckless parking has permeated daily life in some areas of the city and affected the way people get around. We’ve had a huge decline in people walking and cycling to school, because it’s not safe."

The anger that pedestrians feel flies in the face of Rishi Sunak’s recent pitch to drivers, saying he stands on their side in what he calls a “war on motorists”. The prime minister has cited council moves to restrict traffic as a significant annoyance for voters. Last month, reports The Guardian, hundreds of people in 15 locations across England and Wales took to their streets to protest against dangerous driving, in a coalition movement that began life in Birmingham called Safe Streets Now.

England’s walking and cycling commissioners have called on prime minister Rishi Sunak to recognise the myriad benefits of cycling and walking, including reducing pressure on the road network.

The commissioners have sent Sunak a joint letter in reaction to the Government’s policy paper, The Plan for Drivers, which was launched at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month.

As well as expressing support for the interests and rights of car users, A Plan for Drivers sets out detailed new approaches on a range of subjects, including local traffic management, parking and moving traffic enforcement. But, according to the commissioners, the “most effective plan for drivers would be to get behind the Government’s own Gear Change plan”.

There is some hope on the horizon, however. Living Streets persists with its Cut The Clutter and Pedestrian Pound campaigns, the latter given new impact from the latest study to show that prioritising pedestrians on shopping streets helps boost business. Mastercard data in New York shows how an extra $3m was spent when 11 blocks of 5th Avenue were pedestrianised and open to bikes -  6.6% more than nearby shopping streets.

In England, up to 2 million more children will have access to walk to school programmes and cycle training programmes over the next two years thanks to a multi-million pound investment announced by Active Travel England in September 2023.

The £60 million package will help parents have more confidence to walk or cycle with their kids on the school run by funding initiatives that give more children better road skills and aim to help make it easier for parents to choose greener travel options.

Scotland has its national walking strategy, and Wales has recently committed to a national 20mph speed limit on all on residential roads and busy pedestrian streets across Wales.

Another key step forward has been the acknowledgement of a “hierarchy of danger” in “The Hierarchy of Road Users” (Rule H1) in the revised Highway Code. What had seemed like an obvious moral obligation to protect the most vulnerable road uses has now been clarified, although inadequate publicity and poor enforcement may mean that the relevant responsibilities are not known (let alone accepted) by many motorists. 

I for one will be listening very closely to the expert panel on 14 November. I fervently hope that the right to walk and wheel will become a firm policy commitment across the UK, and I can't wait to hear how we can take the next steps on that journey.

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