My first column of 2015 brings me back to a subject that is very close to my heart and which, frankly, should be very much higher that it is on almost every transport practitioner’s agenda. More than that: irrespective of what the ‘agenda’ requires – what the polices are, what the brief states, what the politicians say – walking should be foremost in the minds of all professionals tasked with any work affecting urban highways. Even (dare I say it?) in their hearts.
That’s because everyone walks. All of us. Even ‘just’ for short distances; even if it’s ‘just’ part of a journey where most of the miles are covered by another mode; even if we can’t use our feet any more, and need the assistance of a wheelchair; and even if we can no longer walk, we often did in the past. Indeed, some people who can no longer walk find themselves in that condition because they did not walk enough when they could.
Walking helps us get places; and it also helps us be. There are personal and social dimensions to walking that are just as important as the economic or leisure aspects. Walking, if you like, is the fundamental mode of urban experience. When we walk, we engage much more directly with the environment: we notice much more, we appreciate things more deeply (for good or ill); and we engage more with those around us.
In towns and cities, almost all transactions occur while we’re on our feet. This doesn’t just apply to our forming a queue for the tills, but also to human interaction, with people we know and with complete strangers. Walking – strolling along the boulevard, promenading by the sea front, or wandering through the market – is how we enjoy the towns and cities that we spend our hard-earned time and money visiting while on holiday.
One of my favourite pieces of evidence from a Home Zone pilot study was this statement by an elderly resident: “I love what you’ve done. It used to take me ten minutes to get to the shops; now it takes me 20.” Her point was that, because the street had been redesigned for humans, it was now much easier and more pleasant to stop and talk to her neighbours. (One can only hope her neighbours felt as positive about this aspect of the change!) To anyone thinking that this isn’t ‘proper evidence’, I would simply say that since our work is about outcomes, not just outputs, we need to grasp that people do things differently when they feel differently.
When we’re sitting in a car we’re in traffic. When we’re walking down the street, we’re part of the flow of life. As the American urbanist William H Whyte said in The Social Life of Small Urban Spaces, “The street is the river of life for the city. We come to these places not to escape, but to participate.”
Now, I realise that this might sound a bit starry-eyed, a bit hippy; like I went back to the 1960s and got stuck there. But, in fact, such talk is simply another way of expressing something that I often urge fellow transport practitioners to consider: that, when we plan and design, we should think like the people we are all of the time, not just like the professionals we are some of the time.
But forget all that, if you wish. Ignore the human factor. Care not two figs for those who are lonely. Put aside all thoughts about the health effects of walking. Dismiss social exclusion and the ‘obesity time-bomb’ as none of your business. Leave, if you choose, the environmental impact of transport to the tree-huggers, Al Gore and Swampy. Just think about transport. Why not? That’s all it says on your job description.
People choose not to use the train because the walk to the station is so dismal. People choose not to go by bus because they have to walk out of their way to use the only crossing of a busy road just to reach the stop, and then find the experience of waiting there to be miserable. People drive ludicrously short distances – to school, from town centre to edge-of-centre mall, to their friends – because they perceive the walk (and the bike ride) to be too dangerous, too inconvenient, or both. People whinge about the cost of parking in their local high street because, from their earliest days, walking has seemed such a third-class form of transport, one used only by losers. In short, people make bad transport choices because we have too often failed to help them make the good ones. Walking is free, freely available, and good for us: it should be our first choice, not our last resort.
Which brings me to transport user hierarchies, like that recommended by the Manual for Streets. We, as practitioners, should also think of walking first. Perhaps some of us do. But we typically move quickly on. We often act as though walking isn’t a serious mode of transport; and that we discharge our responsibilities when we do something (anything) we can label as a ‘pedestrian measure’ – however tokenistic it may be. We need to remind ourselves that walking isn’t top of the hierarchy because it’s nice: it’s there because it makes excellent transport sense.
Look. It’s a New Year. The pantomime season is over and we have to stop treating walking like a Cinderella mode (“undeservedly neglected”). There’s much about the walking environment that’s beyond our direct reach as transport practitioners, but there’s also much that we can and should do ourselves, and much more that we can and should influence when we work with others. Let’s resolve to do that, shall we? To do all that we can to make walking the most attractive transport choice for the greatest possible number of journeys, and parts of journeys. This year, and all the next ones.
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