Walking@tea-time: maps and apps

Online: Monday 16 November at 5pm  Register here 

Did you know that Apple have approached London Living Streets to talk about algorithms?  Our London Footways map has started a discussion and the next meeting of Walking@Tea-time will be exploring the potential of algorithms.  In particular, can they capture the human experience of walking?  

In a few years, we’ve gone from a world in which people found their way using the AtoZ to one in which we rely on our smart-phones.  But this is more than a change of medium: in addition to efficient route-finding, algorithms have the potential to provide us with highly customised options and to draw our attention to points of interest or opportunities of particular interest to us.  Can this induce us to walk more?  And is there something special about the paper map that we lose when we reach for our phones? 

Emma Griffin, co-founder of the Footways Project, will describe the human experience of creating the map

Two experts will assist us with our enquiries: 

Ana Basiri, Professor of Geospatial Data Science at University of Glasgow, whose ground-breaking work with large datasets has included the creation of maps from crowd-sourced data 

Hana Sutch, Co-Founder and Chief Walker & Talker at Go Jauntly, the innovative app that both provides and gathers information about great walks 

Register here 

The 15-minute city: a London case study

There has been a huge amount written about the 15-minute city with the emphasis on glamorous city centres in global cities. The reality though is that the 15-minute city is perhaps less likely to find its fullest expression in those city centres where relatively few people live than in local urban high streets and town centres.

When we add the impact of the pandemic, with more people working from home and making use of local shops and services, these local centres have even greater potential to become the heroes of sustainable living.

Continue reading “The 15-minute city: a London case study”

Consultation Response to DfT: Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge

Dear Department for Transport,

Responding to the DfT Policy Paper, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge

London Living Streets – https://londonlivingstreets.com/ – is the campaigning group of residents, operating across London as a whole, of the national charity, Living Streets – https://www.livingstreets.org.uk/. As a voluntary branch of the leading organisation articulating the perspectives and needs of people who walk many of their trips and wish to walk more of them, we are responding to the DfT’s Policy Paper, Decarbonising Transport: Setting the Challenge.

We would like very much to take part in the upcoming Stakeholder engagement process that the DfT wishes to have in preparing its proposals for Decarbonising Transport.

We will confine ourselves largely to Road Transport.

Comments on the thinking in this Paper so far as Road Transport is concerned:

(Our policy proposals are in bold/underlined)

  1. The ongoing assumption of a huge growth in Total Kilometres travelled by road vehicles — 35% by 2050 (over 2018 baseline) – this despite arguing for mode shift to Public Transport and Active Travel (Figure 9).
    Owing to the significant disbenefits of travel by motor vehicles (inc. energy consumption (see 2 below), air quality (see 2 below), road casualties, public health (discouraging people being active) and their negative impact on community and social interaction, The DfT ought instead to be seeking a reduction in both the total number of motor vehicles as well as the total distance they travel annually. These overall reductions should of course vary, having regard to the type of vehicle – buses, delivery vans, private hire vehicles, HGVs, private cars etc.

    We would argue that in the light of the Covid-19 crisis and the longer term changes that may result in travel demands, a review of these assumptions is required.

    In particular, the number of buses and the distance they travel should indeed increase as people are encouraged to make greater use of public transport. But, precisely because, as DfT makes clear, motor cars generate over half (55%) of the entire transport sector’s carbon emissions (Fig. 3), their present number and the distance they travel should be reduced. Cars, of course, are the single most space-inefficient method of transporting people in urban areas, as well as occupying huge quantities of public space as result of 25% of them (some 8 million) being parked on streets over-night (Para. 2.6).
  2. Electric Vehicles by themselves will be far from sufficient to address the challenge of the Carbon Emissions generated by Road Transport

    Electric Vehicles are not a Zero Carbon mode of transport. Their CO2 emissions will only become significantly less than diesel and petrol vehicles to the extent that their sources of electricity become entirely renewable. And mining and processing minerals for the metals their construction require and ‘rare earth’ elements for their batteries, transporting these, and the actual manufacturing process itself will all continue to generate significant CO2 emissions.

    Electric Vehicles on average currently generate more Particulate Matter than their petrol or diesel equivalent (from road surface wear, tyre wear, and their brake linings) because of their greater weight. It is ultra-fine particles, along with Nitrogen Dioxide, that damage people’s health in built-up areas on a massive scale and, inter alia, exacerbate existing respiratory problems.

    Substituting EVs for petrol and diesel vehicles does little to reduce the externalised costs of motor traffic borne by urban populations – road danger, physical inactivity, community severance etc.

    Furthermore, without bringing forward the date for a ban on fossil fuel vehicles, we must remain sceptical how fast EVs are likely to replace them: Current uptake of EVs remains miniscule. The total number is only 230,000 out of 32 million vehicles (Para. 2.4) – or less than 1%. In 2018, only 1.6% of new vehicles bought were EVs (Para. 2.9), this despite the Government subsidising their purchase via the Plug In grant (Para 2.13). Indeed average CO2 emissions per mile from cars and vans have risen over the past 3 years (2016-2018) because of the surge in buying SUVs which now comprise 21% of new car sales. (Para. 2.7)
  3. Not paying attention to the fall in Fuel Duty revenue that must occur as EVs replace petrol and diesel vehicles.

    The only realistic solution to this problem, as has been argued by various economists for some years, is some form of Road User Charging. National Road Transport policy must urgently address this issue with a view to swift adoption.
  4. Overlooking the range of external costs that motor traffic, regardless of carbon emissions, imposes on urban residents 

    The Government has finally recognised the health-damaging impacts of poor Air Quality, and certain cities are taking advantage of the funds beginning to be available to remedy this.

    But there are several other external costs, including: Road Danger; the Discouragement of taking Physical Exercise by daily walking and/or cycling; Noise; and Community Severance. These costs, financial and other, are borne by members of the public who experience these externalities. But public authorities, notably the NHS but also the police, other emergency services and local authorities, are also burdened with the extra financial costs such externalities cause.

    Any new national Road Transport policy must take full account of these externalities and set out how Government proposes to address them.

    In our view only a Road User Charge will make a real difference; something the DfT is already beginning to accept in relation to HGVs. Widespread introduction of Workplace Parking Levies would, however, be another major contribution to Decarbonisation.
  5. Walking & Cycling are modes of transport, particularly within towns and cities, that could be used for the high proportion of journeys that are relatively short.

    The Department for Transport has already recognised the importance of walking and cycling to health, air quality and decarbonisation in its Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy, and needs to build on these foundations through increased investment in active travel.

    To see what has already been achieved in some other countries or cities, the Netherlands, and cities like Copenhagen and Paris, are examples, of the investment needed to transform urban road infrastructures. Low-cost interventions such as Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can also make a major difference to the quality of urban life. We would note the success of relatively low-cost interventions in the London borough of Waltham Forest where a number of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods have now been delivered as part of the Mini-Holland funding from TfL. Their benefits are wide ranging1 and include improved levels of walking and cycling including by children, improved performance by the local economy, improved air quality, lower road casualties and indeed quantified increases in life expectancy. Low Traffic Neighbourhoods can be delivered by modal filters in the form of planters or even concrete blocks and so can be very low cost.
  6. No measures are contemplated to end out-of-town car commuters driving in to work on a daily basis (and/or to shop), and clogging up town or city streets. More generally, DfT must develop specific policies to reduce hugely the current overwhelming dominance of the Car in Commuting to Work.

    Currently (2018), as the Paper shows, 68% of all workers in Britain travel to work by car. Many of these are drivers who live within the urban area where they work; but there are many who choose to live out of town and drive in from the surrounding smaller urban centres and villages.

    In London, by contrast, only 27% of workers travel to work by car. This London achievement, the result of decades of serious investment in public transport, ought to become the national target by 2050.

    This has huge implications for radical shifts in transport investment allocations which any national Transport policy must reflect – away from ‘predict and provide’ and building or ‘improving’ yet more motorways and trunk roads, and towards transforming our urban road infrastructure to enable the buses to provide passengers with integrated, less time-consuming travel; the reallocation of carriageway space towards trams and light rail; as well as infrastructure transformations to enable safe and comfortable Cycling and Walking.

    Bus travel, in particular, has collapsed. Only 5% of all journeys are now being made by bus (Para 2.21). Yet buses are not only hugely more space efficient than cars, but the whole bus sector generates less than 3% of all transport sector emissions. Rail (where the number of passengers has doubled since privatisation – Para 2.33) is even more efficient, producing only 1.4% of all transport emissions (Para 2.30). 

    We look forward to the Department’s Bus Strategy later this year.
  7. There is a need for a quantum shift in transport Investment sums required to meet the DfT targets – ‘help make public transport and active travel the natural first choice for daily activities’‘support fewer car trips through a coherent, convenient and cost-effective public network; and ‘encourage cycling and walking for short journeys’. (Figure 1)

    The DfT has recognised the need for an increase in investment in Active Travel public spending from £250 million a year (Para 2.62). The Paper quotes ‘The £100 billion of additional infrastructure announced in the Conservative Party manifesto for the renewal of roads, rail and other infrastructure’ in December 2019 (Para 2.66).

    Significantly increased investment should be made in walking, cycling and public transport, in line with the recommendations of Living Streets and other members of the Walking and Cycling Alliance.
  8. The target date to achieve Zero Carbon Emissions in the Transport Sector by 2050 will not avoid dangerous Global Heating: 

    The year 2050 is a whole generation away. In the view of most Climate Change scientists, this is far too relaxed a target date for countries to pursue if the planet is to avoid serious Global Heating by the end of the century.

    At the very least, DfT should plan interim targets for the reduction of Transport emissions with for example 5 year intervals.

    These Carbon reduction targets, in turn, need to be translated into investment targets for building additional public transport infrastructure at scale, as well as road infrastructure transformations to enable significant increases in cycling and walking rates.

    Further, there will need to be financial incentives of various kinds to accelerate the transition away from fossil fuel vehicles in favour of EVs and vehicles powered by other non-carbon- emitting propulsion systems.

Further national policy-relevant comments, specifically from our perspective as an organisation articulating what people on foot need from our roads infrastructure – whether walking their whole journeys (trips) or only part of longer journeys made by public transport or other modes (stages).

Based on our experience and expertise, we urge the following:

  1. The need to recognise, at both national and local authority levels, the already existing extent, and potential for expansion, of Walking as a mode of transport for short trips in our villages, towns and cities.

    Walking and Cycling are, it must be emphasised, the only actual Zero Carbon modes of travel. Any national transport strategy focussed on getting Carbon emissions down to zero must therefore pay particular attention to how to get far more short journeys undertaken by these modes (walking up to 2km and cycling up to 8km).

    Active Travel nowadays is widely recognised by transport professionals. Currently many more people walk short trips or stages, than cycle. Walking requires no specialised equipment, is open to all regardless of income and forms an essential part of every journey – including public transport journeys. But walking is often overlooked in infrastructure and planning decision-making.

    There is also a massive disconnect between local transport and land use planning. As Transport for New Homes have highlighted, opportunities in new developments are routinely missed to create Walking- and Cycling-friendly environments, thereby entrenching car dependence into the future.

    We note the rarity of specific Walking Plans drawn up by highway authorities, let alone their making specific budgetary appropriations to create the walking-enabling infrastructure investments and behaviour change programmes required. While Walking is often notionally placed at the top of the hierarchy in many Transport Strategies, the stated mode hierarchy is routinely ignored in practice.
  1. Transforming our urban road infrastructure in ways that enable Walking as a mode of urban transport for short distances – ie.significant investment in changing, reallocating and improving the existing road infrastructure and public realm of our towns and cities so as to make, in DfT’s words in this Paper ‘Active travel the natural first choice for daily activities’.

    This is essential in order to make Walking short trips, or stages in longer trips (to bus stops, railway stations, tram stops etc) the obvious and easy choice for people to make.

    Paying attention to the infrastructure changes that Walking requires also means ending the current over-reliance on encouraging behaviour change (convincing people of the benefits of walking). In our experience, local authorities typically engage in such programmes to avoid the ‘harder’ decisions around reallocating road space away from the longstanding de facto prioritisation of (especially private) motor traffic, and in favour of Walking and Cycling (which, as noted earlier, are the only trulyZero Carbon modes) as well as public transport (notably bus lanes and tram tracks).

    Here we will mention some of the most obvious infrastructure-related investments that Walking requires:
    • Pavements (rapid repair to a high non-trip hazard standard; dropped kerbs; as part of planned infrastructure changes, or at locations where there is a desire and need to increase the ‘place’ function footway widening can be undertaken, including at commuter hubs and other interchanges, shopping streets and schools; upgrading paving materials used; and banning pavement parking);
    • Road Crossings (number of; location; safety of design; pedestrian wait times; amount of time allowed for pedestrians to get across; Countdown indicators; installation of new Zebra-style pedestrian priority at all intersections of side roads with main roads (following the outcome of the results of the TRL study into the experimental crossings in Manchester);
    • Residential Streets with the infrastructure pedestrians need (quality lighting; seating at intervals; pocket parks, planters and other greening);
    • Lower traffic speed limits with 20mph as the default in built-up areas;
    • Local Town Centre and other shopping streets (wider pavements; traffic-free community hubs for local markets; seating; drinking fountains; greening; removal of clutter);
    • Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (the widespread use of mode filters particularly where rat running has non-local traffic passing through a residential area). These have a major advantage of being potentially very low cost to deliverand can be combined with greening projects such as parklets and the use of planters (as modal filters).
    • School Streets;
    • Signage.
  2. Reducing the volume of motor traffic in our urban areas if Walking is to become the default mode of travel for short urban journeys:

    Building walking-enabling infrastructure is not enough on its own. Town and city dwellers will continue to be deterred from choosing to travel on foot even very short trips, or stages in longer trips, so long as our urban streets remain overwhelmed by so much traffic, the vast majority of which is private cars. The disbenefits of this dominance (ie. the external costs imposed on the rest of the population by so many private cars in urban areas) include: health-endangering air quality (contributing to the premature deaths of tens of thousands of people annually); road danger (with pedestrians and cyclists now bearing a far bigger load of road casualties than the drivers and their passengers in cars); the prevalence of obesity, over-weight and other health problems arising from lack of physical activity (due to urban residents having sedentary jobs, or not using Active Travel modes for regular journeys such as the commute to work); community severance and loneliness (as older people and young children, in particular, are deterred from going outside and walking and seeing other people on our streets); and noise. Again we would assert that a review of travel in towns and cities is required following the Covid-19 crisis and that greater emphasis should be placed on active travel and a reduction in the impact of the dis-benefits that travel by motor vehicle causes.

    What measure could most effectively reduce the dominance of our urban streets by motor traffic? In addition to all the policies we have suggested in this response above, we would like to conclude by highlighting one measure whose time, in our view, has come.

Road User Charging: This is much the most effective approach to reducing the dominance of motor traffic in urban areas. In our view it would be the fairest way of managing what is a scarce public resource and should be set in place with an aim of reducing overall urban traffic volumes and supporting public transport (within the guidelines of safe social distancing):

  • This is because it affects everyone using motor vehicles.
  • It also generates funding for investment in enabling sustainable travel modes (public transport, walking and cycling).
  • Road user charging enables drivers to pay more fairly and more fully for the external costs imposed on the community as a result of their choosing to drive, rather than using public transport, or walking or cycling.
  • The savings to the NHS and social care system – as a result of lower volumes of traffic leading to greatly reduced road casualties, as well as the likely reduction in numbers of people prematurely suffering from a range of conditions brought about by exposure to poor air quality or lack of routine physical activity – would be immense.
  • Sophistication and Flexibility as to Purposes and Charges: A sophisticated Road User Charging scheme would set the level of charges varying with regard to a number of factors, including type of vehicle (and so its carbon footprint, production of Particulate Matter etc); how much it is used (ie. distance travelled in the town) and where; and at what time of day the driver chooses to use it (e.g. increased charges at peak travel times) etc. In order to support active forms of travel, a pricing weighting could be given to discourage short journeys by motor vehicle (ones that could be most easily substituted by walking or cycling). The London Congestion Zone, introduced in 2003, is an existing (albeit simple) example. And London’s scheduled (Autumn 2021) extension of its Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which targets in particular more polluting vehicles) is another. Several other English cities are already contemplating their own schemes. The Centre for London has already produced a detailed scheme specifically for London which offers ideas for DfT to consider. (Centre for London, Green Light: Next Generation Road User Charging for a healthier, more liveable London, 2019. https://www.centreforlondon.org/reader/green-light/

We look forward to taking part in the Stakeholder engagement process. We would be happy to respond to any requests from the Department to provide more detailed information on any of the points made above.

Yours sincerely

Jeremy Leach

Chair, London Living Streets

DATE 7th May 2020

Continuing the Drive to Improve Road Safety in Islington with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods

Hokman Wong (specialist brain injury solicitor at Islington firm Bolt Burdon Kemp) looks at road safety in Islington and making streets safer with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods.

Road traffic collisions are the main cause of severe traumatic brain injury in people aged 10 to 50.

Every day I work on cases involving brain injuries. I see the profound effect brain injury has on a person’s life and those around them. Knowing what I know about road traffic collisions and brain injuries, I realise the importance of improving road safety. Since I became a father two years ago, I’ve felt even more passionate about making streets safer for little ones, and big ones too.

Continue reading “Continuing the Drive to Improve Road Safety in Islington with Low Traffic Neighbourhoods”

The future of walking in central London: returning to the best of the past

By David Harrison 

If you were able to go back to the central London of mid-Victorian times, there would be many surprises. Using the recent lockdown to do some research into the period, I found a few. 

Perhaps most surprising was the existence of extensive measures to prevent rat-running. Our ancestors knew that if we were to enjoy our streets they were best kept free of through traffic. 

Continue reading “The future of walking in central London: returning to the best of the past”

Walking @ Tea-Time – The Pedestrian Pound Revisited – 5:30 pm on Thursday, 9th July, 2020

Join us for Walking@Tea-time – The Pedestrian Pound

Following a very lively and well-attended launch event in May, Walking@Tea-time is back to discuss what we know about the pedestrian pound.

Active travel campaigners know that pedestrian spending is very important, and that an attractive public realm brings people in. Major landowners know this too. But many shopkeepers believe their trade depends on the passing motorist. There is now a considerable body of evidence on the subject both in the UK and internationally. We are delighted to welcome two speakers perfectly placed to discuss this evidence: Stephen Edwards, Director of Policy at Living Streets, and Anne Faure, President of Rue de l’avenir. They will also be well-placed to discuss developments post-Covid 19, and (with Anne’s insights) we will consider the likely consequences of Mayor Hidalgo’s recent election triumph in Paris.

We hope you will be able to join us!

Click Here to Register

Walking@Tea-time, is hosted by Tom Cohen and is supported by London Living Streets and the Active Travel Academy at University of Westminster.
Co-ordinators: Tom Cohen, Emma Griffin and David Harrison.

Street Parks for London

One of the few benefits of lockdown has been the quietness of the streets in my neighbourhood. Without motor traffic, people thronged into them as never before: families walking and cycling, teenagers skateboarding, children on scooters – all enjoying the empty roads. As the buds on the trees burst into leaf, and the spring air filled with birdsong, it seemed as if the area had become a park. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, I thought, if we could keep this when lockdown ended. Would it be possible to create a ‘Street Park’: a collection of streets where people feel it is as safe and pleasant to walk and cycle as in a park?

People walking and cycling freely down the middle of their local streets to maintain social distance during the Covid pandemic
People have used all of their streets during lockdown Photos: Martin Gorst

While I was mulling this over, in mid May, Transport for London launched Streetspace for London – a programme to create more space on roads so people can walk or cycle while social distancing. Looking at the documents TfL posted online, I saw it had carried out some impressive research. Among the maps was one showing areas of London, marked in blue, where the street layout creates conditions for rat running.

Map from TfL Streetspace document showing areas where low traffic neighbourhoods should be a priority
TfL’s priority locations for low-traffic neighbourhoods in London

Transport for London would like to transform these areas into emergency low-traffic neighbourhoods – places where councils could quickly install low-cost objects such as planters to remove rat-running motor traffic. To make it happen, local councils need to bid to TfL for the money, but many will only bid if they feel the scheme has local support.

Will people get excited enough about low traffic neighbourhoods to ask their councillors for one? While the concept is great, the term itself is about as appealing as ‘low-calorie diet’. You don’t immediately think “that sounds nice”. As a low-traffic neighbourhood is almost identical to a street park, I wondered if the term ‘Street Park’ would work better. The only way to find out was to put it to the test.

Three wooden planters placed across the carrigeway to block motor vehicles but allow walkers and cyclists free passage
Simple modal filter promoting active travel Photo: London Cycling Campaign

Based on the rat-running areas TfL has identified in Ealing, I’ve mapped out 13 potential ‘street parks’. On average, it would require about five bicycle filters and one bus filter to create each of these areas. That’s about 200 planters – not a lot of money to reduce pollution for thousands of people.

Map showing how south-west Ealing could easily be divided into a number of Street Park areas
Potential Street parks in Ealing Image: Martin Gorst / Open Streetmap

While street parks have lots of benefits, it’s important to acknowledge their down side. The modal filters that remove rat-running traffic can make some car journeys longer for residents. In the past, this has been a major objection to low-traffic neighbourhoods. However, after experiencing the joy of quiet streets in the last two months, many people don’t want a return to busy roads.

Slide listing key characteristics of street parks: Resident parking unaffected, Delivery access to all properties, pleasant place to meet, safe for children to cycle,quiet, less damage to cars from rat-running vehicles
Street Parks Image: Martin Gorst

In the past few weeks I’ve presented this idea to several different groups, and the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. People immediately get the idea of street parks. Why wouldn’t you want a park in your area? I’ve also sent it to my local council. At the time of writing, I hear they are bidding for at least two of the schemes, hopefully they will bid for more. The results of these bids will be announced around 18th June and there will be be a further funding opportunity for councils judged to have used the initial funding well.

TfL is aiming to fund street parks (‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’) all across London. So why not ask your local councillors for one in your area.

Concluding image showing people enjoying quiet, safe, street
Street Parks Image: Martin Gorst

View from the Street: Less Traffic – More Life

View over the square in DeBeavour Town, Hakney

Dido Penny recalls life in one of London’s pioneer low traffic neighbourhoods and looks forward to seeing the benefits as Councils are asked to re-prioritise people over traffic our streets.

A few years ago I shared a flat on De Beauvoir Square in Dalston with a couple of friends. We were lucky in lots of ways – the flat had lots of natural light, views of the square, and a big living area that was great for parties. It even had a tiny garden. But one of the best things about living there was that we didn’t really need a garden at all with the square only a few yards away. We spent a lot of time out there in the summer – picnic breakfasts, afternoons lying in the sun and early evening cocktails where we would take it in turns to run in and get ice. We weren’t the only ones who loved it- most people who lived on the square seemed to spend a lot of time there and it was rarely empty.

Picnic in the square – Photo: Dido Penny

There are lots of reasons why De Beauvoir works so well as a community space. There is a summer fair and various other events (such as the annual dog show), and an active neighbourhood association. And the square is well maintained, with a playground, lots of trees and a rose garden, as well as being a beautiful space to begin with.

But one of the main reasons that people treat it as an extension of their homes is the almost complete lack of any traffic. The whole De Beauvoir area is well filtered; it’s possible to access any street by car, but there are only a few designated through routes without modal filters. So although there are parked cars on the square, and a stream of commuting cyclists for a few hours every day, it’s pretty much car free. It is a real example of how much more pleasant pedestrian areas are, and how a lack of traffic makes people feel that they own the space around their houses and spend more time outside. There were so many things people wouldn’t do if the square was a busy roundabout – picnicking on the grass only a few yards from the road, chatting to their neighbours in the street, letting dogs off their leads or children play in the playground supervised from a distance.

Pedestrians and child cyclists move easily through filtered streets
Pedestrians and cyclists given priority of movement. Photo: Hackney Cycling Campaign

I now live in central Hackney, and though I love the area, there is much less sense of communal space. But walking around the area during the lockdown when there was very little traffic save the occasional delivery van, I noticed that many people seemed to be using the space around their houses in a way that reminded me of De Beauvoir. On my daily walks around familiar streets, people were outdoors much more than they would be in normal times. I noticed several families on the same street washing their cars together, and chatting to each other from across the road (from a safe distance!). People were sitting in the little front yards between their houses and the pavement. I saw one couple having brunch on a table they had set up on the pavement outside their front door, complete with prosecco. The lack of any traffic didn’t just make the streets quieter and the air cleaner, but seemed to create a different atmosphere for the residents as well. On a sunny weekend it felt like this was one of the few positives in this strange situation.

Of course this is partly because many people were not at work and children not at school, and parks were either shut or limited to exercise. In an area where most flats have a small balcony at best, people were improvising to find ways to relax in the sun. But it was also a consequence of there being virtually no traffic to the extent that the streets felt pretty much pedestrianised. The streets in my area are in fact fairly well filtered already and set back from main roads. But despite this the streets normally feel just slightly too busy, and the risk of speeding cars is too real for them to feel truly safe.

In the past couple of weeks since the lockdown has been relaxed, it seems that unfortunately the traffic is returning to normal and I’ve noticed far fewer people using their front gardens and porches and the green spaces next to the blocks of flats. But the nearest park to me is very busy on weekday evenings and weekends as it’s now officially OK to meet friends outside. It seems that just a slight increase in traffic- or even just the perception that people will be driving again – makes quite a big difference. Reducing the number of cars in a residential area can have a big impact on the way people perceive and use the space around them.

The lockdown has also given many a renewed appreciation of their local area- I certainly found that being limited to where I could walk within an hour made me very grateful for the local shops and green spaces. And the importance of a local community and support network has proved to be of real value during the lockdown. Much has been written about how the Covid Mutual Aid groups have connected neighbours and created support networks ready to help those self-isolating. Even the weekly clap for Care Workers has meant that people feel more connected to their neighbours- in some cases actually seeing them for the first time. It would be a really positive outcome if this sense of community could be maintained and built upon.

Having read a little about the history of De Beauvoir square and why it is such a successful low traffic neighbourhood, I learned that the measures to prioritise pedestrians were a result of a long campaign from the local residents in the late 60s and early 70s. Following years of pressure on the council and demonstrations where residents blocked the roads, they succeeded in making most of the area filtered to traffic. It’s a virtuous circle where a determined group of people created a desirable area to live, which itself continues to foster a strong community spirit. I hope that the few weeks of lockdown, which, though so difficult in many ways, give residents in Hackney and other areas a sense of what the area could be like without cars, and that this is something worth fighting for.

Broadway Market open to people walking and cycling
Broadway Market, Hackney with filtered access to allow social distancing. Photo: Brenda Puech

What’s exciting is that changes are already happening. Hackney Council have already closed Broadway Market to traffic, and on the 22nd May announced three further road closures. This is in addition to the  120 road closures proposed in Hackney as part of the London wide StreetSpace plan. This is one of many reasons why Low Traffic Neighbourhoods, which many London Boroughs are now installing, and attractive low pollution walking routes such as the Central London Walking Network, are so important. Streets that prioritise pedestrians are not only safer and healthier, but also more fun to live in and encourage a sense of community. 

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.