Will Walking stay transport’s ‘poor relation’ in the wake of Covid-19?

Narrow pavement, thoughtlessly blocked – Image: Living Streets, Scotland

Robert Molteno examines the risk that walking may continue to be overlooked as active travel is prioritised.

We are living in a moment of great expectation. Almost every day news comes that this or that borough is taking measures to widen pavements for pedestrians so they can keep proper ‘social distance’, or to take carriageway space and turn it into a protected ‘pop up’ cycle route, or even to exclude traffic entirely from some neighbourhood road prone to ‘rat running’ in order to make it safe for people on foot or cycling. The Borough of Croydon has even invented the novel idea of ‘exercise streets’; volunteer residents can get rapid Council permission to close a section of their street to traffic for a couple of hours a day in order to give people safe space to exercise.

And the hope is rising among some that today’s ‘temporary’ will be so enjoyed by people that it becomes tomorrow’s ‘permanent’. And that we really will, as Grant Shapps MP, the Transport Secretary said when introducing his Department’s Paper, Decarbonising Transport – Setting the Challenge, back in Marchuse our cars less, and public transport and active travel will be the natural first choice for our daily activities.” And six weeks later on 9 May, when his Department issued its Covid-19 Guidance to all local authorities on how they should act urgently, as the return to work accelerates, to support walking and cycling as the main way of making short trips, he was even more forthright: “We recognise this moment for what it is: a once in a generation opportunity to deliver a lasting transformative change in how we make short journeys in our towns and cities.”

But before we get taken over by a surfeit of optimism, let us ask the question:

Is Walking really the ‘poor relation’ of other transport modes?

Let’s think about it for a moment.

  • How many politicians get up and say things like ‘We must look after our residents on foot’? Or ‘we promise to spend £X billion on our country’s footways.’ Or ‘we will deliver benches on high streets and in town centres where people can pause and chat’. Do local councillors ever put in their election manifestos: ‘Countdown displays at all signalised crossings to reassure people of all ages and abilities they have time to get across the road safely.’ ‘Arrival indicators at every bus stop so even people without smart phones know how long they have still got to wait (just like on a train platform!)’.
  • Or try Googling ‘The UK’s national walking strategy’, and see what you get! Or, rather, don’t get. Successive UK governments have had Road strategies, and strategies for Rail, Air Travel, Freight, and so on. Even buses got promised a new National Bus Strategy in September 2019 though it hasn’t appeared yet. But Walking? – only in Scotland has this been thought of.
  • At local level, very few London boroughs have Walking Strategies, even as more of them, quite rightly, are developing explicit Cycling Strategies. These days many London boroughs do have Active Travel Strategies. But take a look, and you’ll find they are usually talking mainly about Cycling, certainly when it comes to projects (often with catchy names), or actual sums committed, or timetables for delivery.
  • How many local authorities even bother to count pedestrians? Counting people on overflowing narrow pavements. Counting people waiting way beyond 30 seconds at signalised crossings for the Green Man. Or, worse, counting commuters and shoppers having to thread their way through the traffic because there is no nearby crossing on the road at all. Transport for London (TfL) counts pedestrians in some places, but certainly doesn’t count any of these things. I remember only four years ago when TfL started its Better Junctions Review, its traffic modelling did not include pedestrian statistics as a relevant variable. Indeed has this really changed in the world of traffic modelling even now? Only the City of London makes a point of being consistently serious about actually counting us pedestrians, and making us increasingly the primary focus of its transport policy-making.

Walking remains the Cinderella of transport policy. And not just policy, but projects and spending too. The attitude to pedestrians of too many highway engineers, even transport planners, and their political masters seems long to have been: ‘Everyone walks, don’t they? Like we all breathe. Pavements exist. And what if people have to share them with cars parked on them, as happens everywhere outside London. So, job done. Or pretty much so.’

The hard evidence – how a century of car hegemony has transformed our urban road infrastructure

The evidence of the marginalisation of Walking in policymakers’ minds is the urban road system we are now living with. Let’s just consider:

  • The volume of motor traffic: One statistic will do. In the 1950s when I was a boy, there were only about four million vehicles on the road. Today in Britain, it’s approaching 40 million, and in London alone, 14% of households actually have two or more cars! In simple geometry terms, the authorities are beginning to realize that that number simply cannot fit into the ‘pint pot’ of our urban road space.
  • Collisions and Road Deaths: Another statistic! In the United States, that epicentre of the car culture, by the early 1970s, over 50,000 Americans were being killed on the roads every year – more than the entire number of US casualties during the Vietnam War. And the cause? The refusal of the car industry to design safety into their cars, and the issue of speed limits.
  • Speed Limits too high: When the first steam-powered vehicles appeared on the roads in this country in the late 19th century, Parliament required a man with a red flag walking in front of them! But almost immediately, a change was demanded: by 1903 the speed limit had risen to 20mph. And in 1930 the Road Traffic Act abolished speed limits altogether. Only the soaring number of road deaths that immediately resulted led five years later to a speed limit being reimposed, but this time 30mph in built-up areas, a limit that is still with us today. Over the past decade, the extraordinary 20’s Plenty for Us nationwide campaign led by Rod King has begun to undo this damage, but there are still many boroughs, particularly in Outer London, which still do not recognise the incompatibility of urban living with 30+mph speed limits. It is pedestrians who are primarily paying the price – in 2018 in London, over 50% of all road deaths were people on foot.
  • The sorry story of speed bumps: Some local authorities, my own Borough of Wandsworth included, turned wholesale to building speed bumps as the method of speed enforcement, but an outcry from motorists gathered force. The height of bumps was often reduced, and their shape changed to allow vehicles a smoother ride! The result? Less adherence to speed limits; more deaths and injuries of people not actually travelling in the vehicle.
  • Carriageway architecture: This is a whole subject in itself. So just a couple of examples of changes introduced to facilitate drivers not having to slow down. At road intersections, the geometry of kerbside corners was loosened to enable motorists to turn into and out of side roads with less slowing down. And another intersection innovation – the roundabout. Great for drivers in a hurry, dangerous for pedestrians and cyclists.
  • Pavements – the strange case of the disappearing space: The priority for decades has been ‘smoothing traffic flows’. One thing that meant was maximising carriageway space – wider traffic lanes, more lanes. And the only way to do that was whittling away pavement widths. And when that meant pedestrians on crowded pavements having to step out on to the carriageway, what did the engineers do? Introduce endless guardrails to hem them in. And that’s not to mention all the signage, speed limit notices and parking notices, and now Electric Vehicle charging points, all situated not on the carriageway, but on the pedestrians’ very own pavements!
  • Pedestrian Crossings – under siege: This is another whole subject! In London, back in 2010 we experienced Mayor Boris Johnson’s cull of signalised crossings, also in the interests of ‘smoothing traffic flows’; some 300 were abolished. Local authorities create a mountain of obstacles about installing any new crossing – in my borough of Wandsworth, residents have to prove that the number of people killed or seriously injured on a particular stretch of road must exceed a defined threshold before Officers will even consider building a new crossing. And Wait Times for pedestrians are another scandal – people on foot, including commuters in a hurry, can be made to wait up to two minutes at some signalised crossings before being allowed to cross.
  • And where to put all those 38 million vehicles? Here the authorities face an insoluble dilemma. Most owners of cars in built-up areas do not live in accommodation where they can park their cars off-street. Take the example of Wandsworth again, of the 90,000 registered vehicles, 65,000 of them are parked on the street. That’s an unsightly nuisance, on occasion a danger, for local residents. But the fact that Wandsworth’s parked cars take up 18% of the available road space is a very curse for drivers – more parked cars means less carriageway space; less carriageway space means slower possible speeds and more congestion. In many places, particularly outside London, the law has come up with an extraordinary ‘solution’ – pavements stop being only for pedestrians; instead they become shared space between them and parked cars. Allowing vehicles to park up on the pavement is a leading example of car-centric policymaking.
  • And all those human activities that no longer happened on our streets: Children playing football, cricket, or other games on traffic-free residential roads – a sight common in the 1950s. Street markets and barrows. The street being a place where people wanted to be, if only to socialize and chat.

All these dimensions and examples of car-centric urban road design and policy show just how marginalised walking has become as a mode of transport people want and can enjoy doing in our country today.

But we must not disable ourselves in a sea of pessimism.

Perhaps Covid-19 will transform the place of Walking fundamentally? Grounds for hope.

That is indeed the hope of some of us. And there are certainly straws in the wind that can raise our spirits.

  • Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of what the future could be like: Quiet skies over West London (Heathrow has even closed one of its two runways). No more purplish haze of filthy air hanging low over Central and Inner London for the spring sun to light up each morning. Above all, unbelievably peaceful, untrafficked streets, easy to cross, and much safer for everyone on foot or cycling (the tide of traffic, however, is flowing in again as the lockdown unwinds).
  • The Climate Emergency: That is simply not going to go away. The science in unanswerable. Action is embedded in law. Public opinion is engaged. The Department for Transport (DfT) has declared in March that it must now draw up an effective game plan to get to Zero Carbon across the whole transport sector – ie all modes of travel. The Department had intended, pre-Covid-19, to bring out the new national policy by the end of this year. Let’s see.
  • The sudden, very recent realisation that public transport can only move about 10-15% of normal commuter numbers if people are to be able to ‘social distance’ safely. And since the epidemic may have a long tail, many people will, quite rightly, fear using buses, trains, let alone the London Underground, for many months to come, perhaps even years. Once again, Grant Shapps MP, the Transport Secretary, has been centre stage. On 9 May he announced a hugely accelerated programme to make it possible and safe for many more people to walk and cycle to work, to school with their children, and the local shops. And so avoid public transport. And avoid the nightmare scenario of even more people using their cars to make short journeys than before the epidemic, or others now acquiring a car where before they didn’t have one – with unimaginable consequences for traffic gridlock, poisonous air quality, road danger, and the quality of urban life generally. ‘Over 40% of urban journeys are under two miles,’ Shapps pointed out. ‘The Coronavirus has had a terrible impact on [our] lives, but it has also resulted in cleaner air and quieter streets, transforming the environment in many of our towns and cities…. Millions of people have discovered, or rediscovered, cycling and walking…. When the country gets back to work, we need them to carry on cycling… [and] pedestrians will need more space….’
  • The Streetspace Plan for London: To give practical effect to what the Department for Transport is calling for, the Mayor of London and Transport for London have moved fast to develop the measures they will take on the roads that they manage, as well as setting up a Fund the boroughs can now apply to in order to do similarly on the roads they are responsible for.

The job ahead – making over our urban roads to enable Walking and Cycling again

The brutal reality remains. Only when our political leaders and the transport professionals really take on board how three generations of car-centric road building, road design, and transport policy have deformed what is by far the largest part of our public realm, will the era of the marginalisation of walking and cycling as transport modes in our urban areas begin to be ended. The task is no less than undoing that legacy of infrastructure and policy distortion that the past century of motor vehicle hegemony has wrought. Government and local authorities must invest serious money, year by year, in doing that. Only then will we be able to say that the marginalisation of walking and cycling is coming to an end.

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