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Putting feet into the minds of planners and politicians

Despite being a near universal method of travel, walking is often overlooked in transport policy. Geoff Dudley speaks to Tom Platt, head of policy and communications at walking charity Living Streets, about the organisation’s efforts to make sure the pedestrian voice is heard

Geoff Dudley
25 May 2018
Tom Platt
Tom Platt

Walking is a basic human activity but its fundamental character can make it difficult to identify and categorise as a mode of transport and consequently to occupy a prominent position on the policy agenda. In order to find its political identity it must be given a context. For example, this can include walking for a purpose, such as for leisure or as part of a journey to work, or how walking interacts with its environment, including urban and suburban townscapes, and more natural rural landscapes. In these ways it can demonstrate its value as a means of mobility in the minds of policy-makers, particularly as a viable alternative to the motor vehicle over shorter distances.   

Since its foundation as the Pedestrians’ Association in 1929, Living Streets (which it became in 2001) has been the principal charity representing the interests of walking. As the change in title suggests, over the years it has broadened its remit beyond that of the interests of the individual walker, to include not only the health benefits of walking but also how the pedestrian interacts with the environment, such as in the potential to reduce traffic congestion, improve air quality, and create more attractive spaces in cities and towns. Nevertheless, pushing walking up the policy agenda remains a challenge.

Tom Platt, head of policy and communications at Living Streets, explains how the foundation of the Pedestrians’ Association had its roots in concerns surrounding the rise of the motor vehicle: “By the late 1920s the impacts of the car were beginning to be felt. Although this had advantages in terms of ease of mobility, there were also major challenges. Safety issues were particularly prominent, not only for the occupants of the car, but also for those on foot. The early battles for the Pedestrians’ Association were therefore focused on the safety and rights of pedestrians in relation to motor vehicles. The early successes included the introduction of 30mph speed limits in built-up areas, zebra crossings, and driving licences. From the perspective of the Pedestrians’ Association, these were all necessary to create a safer environment for the individual walker.”

Platt emphasises that such safety issues are still at the core of the work of Living Streets, but there is now a greater emphasis on the wider benefits of walking: “Our mission is for walking to be the natural choice for everyday local journeys. It is not just about walking for its own sake. We believe it helps improve people’s lives, by making them healthier and combating problems such as obesity, but it can also have major beneficial impacts on the environment, such as improving air quality and reducing congestion. These objectives underpin the work we do on the ground with communities, such as our flagship WOW project, which seeks to increase the numbers of primary school children walking to school.”   

The promotion of walking involves improving the physical environment and shifting individual behaviours. “We need to create a better walking environment and to inspire people to walk more. Those two things are really complementary, and in fact two sides of the same coin.” At the same time, Platt acknowledges that, in terms of its projects on the ground, Living Streets has placed an emphasis on behaviour change: “Our organisation was not set up to deliver infrastructure in the same way as, for example, active travel charity Sustrans, which has given a lot of emphasis to the construction of walking and cycling paths. We focus more on undertaking projects that promote behaviour change, such as walking to school. In these, we try to ensure that the results are evidence-based and, in the same way as infrastructure projects, they can have a big impact on the locations concerned.”

However, in the case of their advocacy role, Tom Platt emphasises that much of their work can be in the area of infrastructure: “In seeking policy change, we are often focusing on infrastructure issues. These include such things as the abolition of pavement parking, the wider use of 20mph speed limits, and better quality footways and lighting. We also try and influence how other organisations build their infrastructure, such as professional bodies and local authorities. What we try and advocate is something that will have the biggest impact on the quality of the pedestrian experience.”  

Facts and figures

Joe Irvin has been Living Streets’ chief executive since 2014. In the late 1990s he was a special adviser to Labour’s deputy prime minister John Prescott, who masterminded the 1998 Transport White Paper, with its heavy emphasis on walking, cycling and public transport. 

The charity’s income in 2016/17 was £5,611,388, up £531,517 on the previous year. It recorded a net surplus of £1,160,008 in the year, a big improvement on the previous year, which recorded a deficit of £178,073. 

By far the largest income source is its charitable activities, which totalled £5,157,211, up £594,158 on the previous year. This increase was largely due to additional grants being awarded by the DfT, as well as securing new contracts as a result of Living Streets’ diversification programme. One notable DfT award was the ‘Walk To’ project with Blackpool Council as the main delivery partner. Walk To consists of a national partnership of ten transport authorities as well as two third-sector organisations. The contract is worth £7.5m over three years, and is one of the largest grants awarded through the DfT’s Access Fund programme. Living Streets also secured additional support from the DfT for a Walk to School outreach programme, worth £1m over one year, targeting 200 primary schools. 

A further significant source of income is the trading subsidiary Living Streets Services Ltd, which returned a surplus to the charity of over £376,000 in 2016/17. In addition, legacies and donations totalled £50,163. 

Living Streets’ head office is in London, and it has offices in Edinburgh, Newcastle Upon Tyne, and Cardiff. In 2016/17, the average number of employees totalled 71, down from 86 the previous year. The employees operate the charity’s projects, but there are also 25 local groups, and 80,000 registered supporters.

Platt acknowledges the contribution made by volunteers: “Many of our supporters live and breathe the cause, and have varied interests. For example, many are involved in wider approaches, such as campaigning for 20mph zones, while some work with other groups, such as parents groups and cycling organisations. They can make a real difference on the ground.” He adds: “Our full-time campaigning group is quite small, and it is really important that we have people campaigning locally. We want to try and get more people involved at the local level, and have more local groups up and running.”  

The flagship and long-running WOW project encourages primary school children to walk to school, rewarding them with collectable monthly badges. In 2016/17 around 900,000 children in 3,500 schools were encouraged to walk more through national schemes and events, including a Walk to School Week. In Scotland, about 11 per cent of primary schools now participate in WOW, and these schools have levels of walking five to ten percentage points higher than for all Scottish primary schools, says Living Streets’ annual report. Living Streets estimates that WOW interventions produce an increase in children walking to school of 23 per cent after five weeks, sustained at 22 per cent a year later.

Platt believes the WOW concept has struck a chord at the local level: “We have found this model that really works, and local authorities, parents and school governors are all on board with what we are doing.” Nevertheless, he acknowledges that wider measures are required to reverse a long-term culture away from walking to school: “For example, street closures outside schools can reduce congestion and pollution. People might not always appreciate the value of walking in itself, but they can understand the importance of road safety, and of the need for a pleasant environment around schools.”     

Urban action

For the last two years, Living Streets has held a Walking Summit, which brought together a range of experts from around the world to discuss how the urban environment can be improved to assist the promotion of walking. The 2017 summit saw Living Streets launch its Walking Cities campaign, which recommends that city leaders should commit to appointing walking champions; clean up the air; create people-friendly town and city centres; and make roads safer. Platt explains that the emphasis on the urban environment is in keeping with the title of the organisation: “More people are seeing things in terms of living streets, and the quality of the environment when they are walking. For example, this can be important in terms of property development, as people want to live in areas with public spaces where you can enjoy being in that environment. We’re trying to make a point of that with city leaders. In these cases, it’s important that talk is followed up with investment.”

A flagship campaign for Living Streets in improving the urban environment is the pedestrianisation of Oxford Street in central London, and Platt explains the commitment they have made: “We have campaigned for this over a number of years, and for a long time could not get it on the agenda. The turning point was the election for London mayor in 2016. We lobbied extensively all the main candidates, and were very pleased that Sadiq Khan made a commitment to this as the new mayor. A key figure here was the deputy mayor Val Shawcross, who is responsible for transport. We had been working with her on the possibilities of pedestrianising Oxford Street for years, and now she is in a position to push things through.” 

Shawcross this month announced her retirement from the deputy mayor’s post (LTT11 May). Whether this deals a blow to the Oxford Street plan remains to be seen; the project is not without controversy and Westminster City Council, whose street it is, last month halted design work. 

One controversial urban environmental measure is that of ‘shared space’, and here Living Streets has to take into account the protests and misgivings of disability groups, who are concerned at the safety of sharing spaces with vehicular traffic. Platt acknowledges the difficulties here: “There has to be a careful balancing act in ensuring that shared space caters for all pedestrians. In this respect, shared space can be a can of worms, because people interpret it in so many different ways.

“We are not always aligned with every disabled group on objecting to shared space, which can work if planned properly. Ultimately with shared space it is about the context and the design. You can still have cars travelling fast with high flows, and this is not a good shared space environment. 

“You can always have hard and fast rules when it comes to fixing who has priority, but in fact it often comes down to placing complex street design in context. One of our flagship tools, which we’ve been using for years, is the community street audit, which looks at the needs of the individual. Communities know the issues they face, and what they want from their streets.”       

Influencing policy

The DfT published a Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) last spring (LTT 28 Apr 17), which included a commitment to increase walking activity, measured as the total number of walking stages per person. Quantitative targets for 2025 included an increase in walking activity to 300 stages per person per year; and an increase in the percentage of children aged five to ten that usually walk to school from 49% in 2014 to 55%. Platt emphasises the commitment Living Streets made to lobbying for the strategy: “This was something we spent an awful lot of time on – much more than we had thought originally. However, without our input it would probably have been just a cycling strategy. We spent a lot of time working with DfT officials and ministers to ensure that the walking element wasn’t dropped at any point, and for a couple of years this was one of our big tasks. This meant that we were key stakeholders in the discussions to set quantitative targets for 2025.”

Platt is satisfied with the targets set by CWIS, but would like to see the Government make more financial commitments to the strategy: “A lot of CWIS was a repetition of long-term ambitions, and we would have liked to see a programme setting out how the ambitions could be realised. To be fair, the DfT is now working on some of these more detailed aspects retrospectively, and there is a lot of good stuff here. CWIS does not have the same bite as, for example, the roads strategy, where huge amounts of money are available. We will also continue to push the DfT on supporting policies, such as the widespread introduction of 20mph zones.”  

Walking and cycling dilemmas

CWIS reflects the fact that, in policy terms, walking and cycling are often classed together. Platt acknowledges that there are risks here in terms of walking acquiring the image of the subsidiary mode, but overall believes that being grouped with cycling has advantages: “Documents such as CWIS enable walking to be part of the policy conversation, and the advantages are greater than the risks. It is important to be at the decision-making table, and walking and cycling often have similar benefits. It can happen that walking gets tagged on to the end of cycling, but on the other hand, if walking is treated separately, then it might not get considered at all.”

One recent example where walking has needed to fight its corner is in the Government’s decision to set up a cycle safety review. This came about particularly through a number of incidents involving cyclists, including a high profile 2016 case where a pedestrian was killed in a collision with a cyclist. The review was split into two phases, the first being a legal review to examine whether a new offence equivalent to causing death by dangerous driving should be introduced for cyclists. The second phase of the review was a wider consultation on cycling safety. However, when the Government launched the consultation in March, this had mutated into the cycling and walking investment strategy safety review. 

“We pushed hard for a pedestrian input into the safety review,” says Platt. “It demonstrates how walking can sometimes be a little bit on the coat tails of cycling, and we are working to get walking up the policy agenda.” 

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