May is National Walking Month – the annual celebration of walking and streets organised by Living Streets, the UK charity for everyday walking. As the charity marks its 90th anniversary, it has a campaign to make streets fitter for walking for everyone, whether they are aged nine or 90. I am a Trustee of Living Streets and I am passionate about the many benefits that arise from making places more walkable.
For many people, walking is just something that happens when we put one foot in front of another, and as such it is often taken for granted and overlooked. However, it is an important mode of transport in its own right, as well as being a part of virtually all other journeys we make, whether by bike, bus, train or car. And it brings great benefits – for individuals, for communities, for the environment and for businesses.
Yet we are walking less than we used to. The distance people walk has gone down by about a tenth over the past ten years. People in England walk an average of about four miles per week, or just under 200 miles a year. But averages can be misleading: every month, four out of ten adults aged 40 to 60 in England spend less than ten minutes walking continuously at a brisk pace. What’s more, nearly a third of all car trips are shorter than two miles. So there is potential for change.
Public Health England is clear about the health benefits of getting every adult active every day. As little as ten minutes of physical activity at a time benefits both physical and mental health. Persuading inactive people to become more active could prevent one in ten cases of stroke and heart disease in the UK, and one in six cases of death from any cause. It could reduce levels of depression by 30 per cent and reduce the risk of dementia – now the leading cause of death in England and Wales – by 30 per cent. As Public Health England states, “if physical activity were a drug it would be classed as a wonder drug”.
Moving towards a world that encourages walking requires the transformation of our towns and cities, many of which suffer from being designed around the car. The walkable city is one that puts people first and shapes itself in accordance to its citizens’ needs and desires. To address the complexity of the urban issues, a kaleidoscopic set of actions and policies is required.
Yet we do not talk much about walking. Talk about transport tends to be dominated by technology – chiefly electric vehicles and and autonomous vehicles. For example, recent media coverage of the Committee on Climate Change report Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming stated: “The report says we won't need to overhaul our motoring habits, but eventually we will be driving electric cars.” (BBC News, 2 May 2019 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-48122911). I think this is wrong – we do need to change our driving habits.
So why is there a focus on some types of transport while others are neglected? Could it have something to do with the fact that the transport sector is some 80% male?
The recently published book “Invisible Women” by Caroline Criado Perez highlights the gender bias in transport planning and the impact that this can have. One example is snow clearing: the usual practice of clearing roads before footpaths disproportionately disadvantages women – who are more likely to walk – over men – who are more likely to drive.
Figures from the Department for Transport’s National Travel Survey (England 2017) highlight some of the differences. Women:
· Walk more than men – 269 trips per year, compared to 240 for men
· Travel by bus more than men – 61 trips per year, compared to 50 for men
· Make fewer rail trips than men – 18 trips per year, compared to 24 for men
· Cycle less than men – 9 trips per year compared to 24 for men
· Make more, but shorter, car trips than men – a total of 4,767 miles per year, compared to 5,449 for men. And early data on Electric Vehicles showed that the uptake of these was 89% men and only 11% women. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/464763/uptake-of-ulev-uk.pdf (Overall, women own about one third of cars in the UK.)
When it comes to why people travel, women make more leisure, shopping and education and escort education trips than men, and fewer commuting and business trips. And there are other differences which influence transport. Across the UK, men earned 18% more than women in April 2017, according to the Office for National Statistics. And health – women are less active than men, with 34% of men and 42% of women not active enough for good health.
Could this help to explain the dominance of consideration of peak hour trips and commuting trips in transport planning and the media focus on car travel and the neglect of walking?
So, for National Walking Month (and indeed every month!), I would like to see more talk about walking, recognising the economic, environmental and social benefits that this brings. I would like to see better balance in transport – not just in terms of gender, but for all aspects of diversity. And I would like to see recognition that future mobility it not all about electric and autonomous vehicles. As transport planners we should be focusing on doing the things that we know bring benefits to people and our towns and cities: more walking, cycling and public transport.