Why walking is the way to go

The topic of air quality has been at the forefront of British news for the last few years, with pollution levels too high and a reliance on cars congesting our roads. Living Streets’ Kathryn Shaw discusses why walking should be prioritised in local communities

Motor traffic is the biggest cause of UK air pollution and is a rising concern for the public, with the courts requiring UK authorities to improve their plans for improving air quality. Reducing the number of vehicles on our roads will significantly reduce the levels of toxic air we breathe every day – and the devastating costs they have on our health. If just a fraction of people can see the benefit of shifting from driving shorter distances to walking or cycling, this would make a big difference.

Sadly, a legacy of designing our town and cities around cars has left many streets unattractive places to walk, cycle or use public transport. The negative impact of car-centric lifestyles creates a social burden – a reduction in physical activity, more isolation and a rise in congestion. One way or another, we need to encourage people to leave their cars at home for short journeys and use more sustainable ways to travel. The National Travel Survey for England revealed that 24 per cent of car/van trips are under two miles, whilst one in five adults (19 per cent) don’t walk for 20 minutes a week at all during a year.

The time has come for a more effective approach. Central government has made a start with the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy for England, a National Walking Strategy for Scotland and the Active Travel Act in Wales – but these are yet to be followed by the required action or investment. And local authorities have their part to play, by planning and designing their streets and local areas around people – not vehicles, and supporting behaviour change.

Put walking first
Living Streets’ Blueprint for Change identifies seven steps towards making towns and cities more walkable to help transform the way people experience places and improve everyone’s quality of life. The seven steps are based on examples of best practice from all over the UK and around the world. They contain a range of suggested policies and programmes aimed at local authorities and decision makers.

Step one: Making walking a priority
Walking for short journeys should be a central theme of transport, planning, health and clean air strategies, to encourage complementary policies and actions. Strong leadership is essential to ensure walking is prioritised and part of a broader vision to improve people’s quality of life. The Mayor of London appointed Will Norman as Walking and Cycling Commissioner in 2017, and Chris Boardman has taken on a similar role in Greater Manchester. Local authorities should also make sure they know and access the full range of funding streams available to improve the walking environment.

Step two: Plan for walking
Local planning departments store up massive problems in terms of congestion, air pollution and inactivity by building car-dependence into new housing developments. Research from Living Streets Scotland last month (July 2018) suggested housing developers are locking people into unhealthy and expensive car-dependent lifestyles by failing to provide infrastructure or access to healthier travel options, including walking, cycling or car sharing.

Neighbourhoods should be planned to enable communities to access everyday services without using a car, ensuring new housing, shops, schools and public transport stops are located close to home and accessible on foot.

Step three: Create a walking network
Key destinations should be easy to access on foot via a network of well-connected, direct and easy to follow routes. The Department for Transport has produced guidelines to help English local authorities create a Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan, including priority walking networks and zones, with similar advice existing in Scotland and Wales.

Local authorities should work with communities to understand key walking destinations and local barriers to walking. For example, identify key barriers to families walking to school or residents walking to their local shops.

Step four: Design streets as places to enjoy
Streets should be accessible and inviting to everyone, including disabled and older people, so everyone can enjoy walking and spending time there. Reducing the volume and speed of motor traffic, ensuring signalised crossings prioritise people on foot with short wait times, and providing toilets and seating in locations that meet people’s needs can help improve streets.

Local authorities shouldn’t be afraid to be innovative, using low cost, temporary measures to trial a new approach – like the introduction of informal zebra crossings in TfGM’s Beelines projects.  

Step five: Provide an alternative to the car
Develop a long-term strategy to reduce the number of motor vehicles in town and city centres and free up space for walking and cycling. Public transport with good access for pedestrians should be promoted for longer journeys in combination with policies to reduce private car use for all but essential travel. Enable people to cycle by providing a safe, coherent and attractive network with good cycle parking at key locations. Promote car clubs and car sharing to reduce private car ownership. And explore smart road-pricing options that generate revenue which can be reinvested to support walking, cycling and public transport.

Step six: Make walking safe
Road danger should be tackled at source to create safer places without introducing unnecessary barriers to people walking. Commit to implementing a genuine Vision Zero approach to road danger with a long-term vision for streets free from death and serious injury.

Implement area-wide default 20mph speed limits that include main roads and high streets where people live, work, shop and play; and restrict rat-running through residential areas. In some cities, street closures in front of schools have been introduced to increase safety and encourage walking to school. Work with police and civil enforcement officers to penalise inconsiderate or illegal behaviour, such as speeding, pavement parking or red light running.  

Step seven: Change behaviour
Encouraging people to walk everyday journeys, such as to school or to work, will help change behaviour and bring streets to life. The walk to school is an opportunity for children to be physically active, connect with their community and develop their independence and road safety skills. But walking to school has been in decline for several decades - with one in four cars on the road during the morning peak on the school run. Over 2,000 schools and nurseries in England and Wales are within 150 metres of a road with illegal levels of air pollution.

Children are especially vulnerable to air pollution. Living Streets’ research shows that over half of parents are concerned about the health issues air pollution causes their children (56%) and more than a third (36 per cent) would take pollution levels into account when choosing a school for their child.

Living Streets works with over 2,000 schools to run WOW – the year-round walk to school challenge. WOW rewards children who walk to school at least once a week with a collectable badge. Primary schools taking part in WOW typically experience a 23 per cent increase in children walking to school and a 30 per cent drop in cars arriving at the school gate.

Local authorities should invest in proven behaviour change programmes, like WOW, to encourage people to walk more. Where funding isn’t possible, they can encourage schools to use their recently doubled Sport Premium – funded by the ‘sugar tax’ - to support such schemes instead.

And public authorities are also major employers. Living Streets’ chairman, Archie Robertson, is a former CEO of Highways England, and recognises the value that employers can make in promoting walking in and around the working day.

He says: “Savvy business leaders should recognise the numerous ways in which walking is beneficial for both the employer and the employee. Employers can establish a culture of walking through championing the ‘walking meeting’, celebrating events such as National Walking Month each May, and making low-cost provisions for staff, such as walking maps of the local area. In doing so they will be taking responsibility for their employees’ health.”   

You can make a big difference
Decision makers in central and local government can make a big difference to air quality, and in particular encouraging people to walk more rather than driving short distances. As well as addressing your own vehicle movements and those you commission and regulate, there is much you can do to create a more pedestrian-friendly environment for your employees, local education establishments, local residents and the general public.

To find out more detail about the seven steps, download Living Streets’ Blueprint for Change from livingstreets.org.uk/walkingcities

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