What’s next? Questions about walking and the future of central London

Emma Griffin, co-founder Footways, vice-chair London Living Streets

Central London was running at full tilt when we started work on Footways. Our network of quiet and interesting streets was designed to lure people out of crammed tubes and crawling taxis and onto streets where they could travel healthily and enjoy the city.

By the time we published our Central London Footways map with Urban Good last September, everything had changed. Footfall and spend in the centre had plummeted. London lost almost a quarter of a million jobs between March and the end of 2020, the highest fall in the UK (GLA). Arts, culture and London’s night-time economy were at particular risk. 

But our network was even more relevant. People wanted the safety of distance that walking could provide. Months of lockdown strolls were already changing travel habits. According to a recent TfL report, 31% of Londoners said they are walking to places where they used to travel by a different mode. 

But now we’ve got a roadmap out of the latest lockdown, we think it’s time to look further ahead – at central London’s future and the role that walking and brilliant public realm could play in that. 

The next two years are critical — to bring people safely back to city centres on foot and bike; to revive the life on streets; to make most of new healthy travel habits; and to decarbonise our roads.

We’ve listed some research below to guide thinking, but tell us what you think in the comment box below.

  • How will your journeys into and around central London change?
  • How many days will you return to your central London office?
  • What do you miss in Zone 1 the most?
  • Which trips will you switch to walking? Would you walk all way from Inner London? Or the final leg from a mainline or hub station?
  • What needs to change in the centre to bring you back? 

One prediction is that people will visit London less, but spend more time in the centre when they do, to make the most of its culture, entertainment and public spaces.

But attracting people to a “playground city” requires “more emphasis on quality of place, including the public realm”, says Arup, LSE and Gerald Eve in a recent interim report for Greater London Authority, adding that London’s rivals, especially Paris, “have taken significant action in this space already”. 

We think this means much more space and amenities for people on foot, much less traffic and lower air pollution. It also requires boroughs and Transport for London to focus on the connections between destinations, as much as the destination themselves. After all, the best of London is experienced from the street.

The good news is we’re walking more 

  • 31% of Londoners say they are now walking to places where they used to travel by a different mode (TfL)
  • 57% say they now walk more for exercise and 42% walk for longer than they did before (TfL)

But we can walk more and further

  • Before the pandemic, the average distance of a walk stage across all of London was just 320 metres. The average distance of a walk-all-the-way trip was 840 metres. (TfL)
  • Almost two-thirds of visitors to central London are Londoners, whose residence is concentrated in inner London.
  • Some of these journeys could be walked all the way and many can be walked the final leg from mainline stations and transport hubs. 
  • Before Covid, approximately 3,125 people took the tube between Waterloo and Tottenham Court Road on an average weekday, a journey that could be walked in 25 happy minutes (especially on our Footways routes). 
  • Analysis by a major employer in central London found that 9% of its 5,000 staff lived close enough to walk (in 15 minutes). A further quarter, who came from outside London into hub stations, could walk the final leg of their journeys.

The future of central London 

  • Central London suffered more than cities such as Paris and New York largely because it has fewer residents. Just 45,000 residents live within 1.25km / 15-minute walk of Trafalgar Square, compared to 120,000 residents who live within 1.25km / 15-minute walk of Notre Dame de Paris. (Arup et al.)  
  • The majority of central London’s workers come from inner London and many are missing the face-to-face contact of offices, events and meetings.
  • Almost half of the 2,000 office workers (46%) polled by British Council for Offices (BCO) said they intended to split their work between home and the office. 30% were set for a full, five-day-a-week return to the office, compared to 15% who planned to only work from home. 
  • Creative people seem particularly keen to return to the office. Only 7% of marketeers planned to work from home full time, with 62% of this group stating they enjoy the creative exchanges that occur in the office (BCO). 
  • But less commuting needn’t be a disaster for central London if people “save their retail and leisure spend for the days that they are in town” (Arup et al.).
  • This is an opportunity for central London to reimagine itself, to “cater for a new generation of experiences, for a new and improved public realm, for lower congestion, inclusive growth, improved air quality, a strengthened cultural offer, and for attracting new types of residents, whilst preserving the existing diversity” (Arup et al). 
  • Footways prioritises connections between cultural destinations and mainline stations and hubs. Check out our walks to the British Museum, for example from Waterloo or Victoria, which merge the journey into the visit. 
  • Footways also connects world-class public realm improvements already complete or planned including the West End Project, Cheapside, Strand Aldwych and Clerkenwell Green. 

More local journeys 

  • A mix of home and office working will also help local town centres and create an opportunity “to create a truly polycentric city …  each with their own identity and specialisation” (Arup et al). 
  • There is also possibility of increased leisure and night-time spend outside the centre, especially in inner London. 
  • Again, walking is important, so people access and enjoy town centres on foot rather than car. More on this in a future blog. 

What do you think? 

Has London’s walking environment become even more important in the pandemic? How do you plan to travel in months to come? What needs to change in central London to bring people back?  

Image: Paul Buchanan

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