Central London Walking Network conference report


Central London is full of people walking. They pour out of rail termini, underground stations and buses. 734, 000 walking trips a day. Yet there is a gross misallocation of street space. Most of it goes to the relatively small number of motor vehicles either moving or parked, while pedestrians often struggle on narrow pavements in polluted streets. 

In 2016, 1.3 million people entered Central London during the weekday morning peak (excluding people walking – who are not counted!). Only 58,000 entered by car at the peak, and just over 100,000 unique vehicles entered the congestion charge zone during charging hours. Yet vehicles are allocated most of the street space

Travel in London, TfL

On 28 November a large audience gathered to hear about an inspirational new idea to make Central London fit for walking. They included a wide range of groups: cabinet transport and environment leads, council officers, representatives of Transport for London and the Greater London Authority, BIDs, community and disability groups, theatres, landowners, cultural institutions, design professionals, experts and campaigners. The event was organised by London Living Streets and the Urban Design Group which is campaigning for People Friendly Places and had terrific support from TFL and the GLA.

So it was fitting that Katja Stille (Director, Tibbalds) of the UDG began the afternoon by introducing Will Norman, the Mayor’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner. He set the scene with an array of key facts about the health benefits of activity and the huge numbers of people already walking in Central London (On exiting the following underground stations, the percentage of those walking are: Charing Cross – 59%. Embankment – 78%, Leicester Sq – 90%), and the evidence that despite the high number, more journeys could be made on foot if the conditions were right. In particular, many short trips currently taken by tube. 

Next Emma Griffin and David Harrison of London Living Streets outlined the CLWN concept (see Box), and showed the routes and network they were developing. 

The Central London Walking Network proposes a network of healthy and attractive routes that connects London’s iconic detastinations, railway stations and parks. It uses London’s ancient, characterful streets and alleys for those on foot, leaving the big roads built by the Victorians and Edwardians for through motor traffic. These older streets often need relatively small improvements to create safe, clean, quiet, pleasant and interesting walking environments. The Network links projects, proposed and underway, including Camden’s West End Project and the redevelopment of Holborn gyratory and Westminster’s plans for Strand Aldwych. By linking these, and other attractions and transport interchanges, the network connects and presents London as an outstanding commercial and cultural destination.


  • A network of clean, safe, quiet, and interesting streets
  • Enables and invites visitors, residents and workers to walk between transport interchanges and attractions, taking the pressure off public transport and reducing the reliance on private hire vehicles
  • Presents London as world-class city where people want to visit, live, work and learn
  • Increases active travel and healthy lifestyles
  • Creates low pollution walking routes
  • More people walking creates commercial opportunities for businesses and landowners
  • Improves road safety by providing more space for walking and improved crossing points

They were followed by Esther Kurland who led a session on ‘Convivial Connections’ and inspired the room to outline routes they used and would like to see, and the weaknesses in them. Pens scribbled over post-it notes and lines were drawn on maps. We will be analysing them over the next few weeks. Issues raised in the discussion included: two-stage crossings; garden squares used as roundabouts; lack of capacity for pedestrians, missing footways, and streets that are heavily trafficked, noisy and polluted.

Then it was on to news from the boroughs. There was an impressive line-up of the Transport leads for three key Central London boroughs. First up was Adam Harrison from Camden, which has recently agreed an ambitious transport strategy which aims who set out the most ‘transforming transport and mobility in Camden, enabling and encouraging people to travel sustainably; nurturing healthier lifestyles; creating radically less polluted places’ walking mode share from 42 – 50%. Car/motor cycle down from 13 to 5% considerable potential for more walking trips in Euston area Bloomsbury.  Not only does Camden have the right policies but it has undertaken and is undertaking impressive projects to implement them. Princes Circus is being transformed at this moment into a great new public space, and work on Brunswick Gardens will start next year. Moreover, Camden has adopted the Central London Walking Network and its routes in its Transport Strategy, and he and Camden officers have been walking the routes and plan to implement a number of quick wins very soon. 

Camden Council’s proposals for Brunswick Square

Adam also looked to the future and what could be learned from our continental neighbours. He was impressed by the many side road zebra crossings in Paris which greatly increase the speed of walking, and would be pressing for them to be introduced soon.Such crossings can cost as little as £200 to install and be applied anywhere easily. It delivers much clearer priority and is easily maintained. The UK has invested billions of pounds on side road entry treatments when the use of paint would have been more effective in most cases. For example, in

  • 2008 in London around £1.5m was spent on 79 side road entry treatments as
  • part of the London Cycle Network Plus project. 

(Technical Note: In the UK the requirements in the traffic regulations that Zebra crossings must have flashing beacons increases the cost to around £10,000 per crossing or more; and the requirement to install zig-zag lines on the approach to the crossings, stops them from being located across the mouth of side roads.)

Tim Mitchell from Westminster announced his determination to collaborate with colleagues at the conference and businesses and residents to make Westminster a better place to walk. The aim is to work with partners to create new routes and public spaces, and enhance existing streets. This was essential for a borough with 250,000 resident and over one million who arrive every day. But they were confronted by the pressing needs of air quality, noise and congested pavements which means action had to be taken. The had to be a mode shift. To assist with this Westminster has a 4 street type hierarchy:  

  1. strategic roads (eg Victoria Street), 
  2. key centres, 
  3. Local High streets and centres, and 
  4. Liveable residential streets. 

Some improvements have already been made such as changes to Marylebone High St with rain gardens and crossings designed for the benefit of pedestrians not motorists. Now, extremely ambitious plans have been agreed for the Strand (with massive support from the public) and Oxford Street District – including much better spaces, public realm and a reduction in rat-running. But working with residents and other stakeholders is essential as is ensuring plans address a whole area. Residents had recently objected to a pedestrianisation scheme in Soho, showing the need for an area wide approach. This was being done in Covent Garden. The Council will be consulting on this area soon.   

Oliver Sells, Chairman of the Streets and Walkways Committee in the City of London, began with a confession: he was a passionate walker. It had taken him 35 years to get to a position of running the City’s streets and to make them fit for walking. Walking is at the heart of the City of London’s Transport Strategy.  His Committee now has 200 proposals to implement: about 46 have been done this year, the rest in 3 years. The main reasons for the Strategy. First, capacity: 500, 000 people come into the City each day, and they walk, including to and from public transport. Crossrail will bring many more. Pavements are crowded and uncomfortable. So how streets and open spaces are designed and described has to change radically.   

Nothing less than a London Cultural revolution will do.  We have the political will to recognise that our streets are for people, families, children, the less able first, not vehicles.  They are public realm, not rat runs. We have an appalling mindset of driving short distances with our children to school. We need to stop that and reverse it all over London. We know what people want: high quality streets, good public spaces. Businesses such as Bloomberg and Nomura are pressing for this because it is more agreeable for their employees

“In a city like ours which has a fantastic network of public transport, there is no excuse for allowing people to drive their cars as though the world had not changed since 1965.  It’s over.”

Oliver Sells, chairman of City of London’s Streets and Walkways Sub (Planning and Transportation) Committee

The City of London’s proposals

  • Crossings are too slow, waiting times are too long.  We are going to stop that.
  • We are going to widen pavements
  • We are closing streets for parts of the day on a regular basis (eg there have been lunch time closures of Chancery Lane).  
  • When developers build large new buildings, the ground floor will be public space.  
  • We are encouraging people to walk with signed walkways so that they can find their way from A to B, and are working with employers to plan routes for their employees
  • A long overdue substantial reduction in motorised vehicles: 25% by 2030, 50% by 2040

The City has shown great political work, eg over Bank Junction; organisations, eg the Bank of England, now strongly support it but, before it was done, opposed it for many years. As to the future, Finsbury Circus will be reopening asap: an open space linked with quiet streets; Beech Street will be the first Zero emission street, stopping the 9,500 vehicles using it as rat run every day. 

“A vision– you ought to be able to walk from the far extremities of Hyde Park, across Constitution Hill through to Trafalgar square down the Strand, across Aldwych through Fleet street to the most beautiful building in London on the far side of Ludgate Circus at  St Pauls and on through to Aldgate Circus and beyond.

Oliver Sells, QC

The prize for London is huge.  From a dull grey city in the 60s to the motorised chaos of the 70s and 80s, we are beginning to see London revealed in all its architectural beauty without pollution and noise: quieter, cleaner, safer.

The panel discussion raised interesting issues about inter alia taxis (why are we allowing diesel vehicles to travel empty and to trade using public space) and cross borough cooperation. Tea followed with much discussion and application of post-its to maps. Great to see the boroughs deep in conversation. 

After came John Dales of Urban Movement who addressed a core element of the Central London Walking Network – the importance of a network. You can walk (almost) everywhere, but because that was permitted, it did not mean it was enabled. To get a network you had to ensure you had no weak links, and there were usually many – often crossings. He also pointed to the need to fill out the CLWN into a complete network, eg between the City and Holborn. There had been many cycling strategies, but not a national walking strategy – which probably explains why we do not have a network for walking. In fact, though there had been a plethora of reports on walking, most had put far too much emphasis on ‘encouraging’ walking – ‘encouraging’ normally means doing nothing useful. 

But there were a few good reports, including (despite the title) ‘Encouraging Walking, DETR, 2000’. It argued for reallocating road space, but was advice (and so was largely ignored) not the strategy which had been expected and had been recommended in the House of Commons Select Report https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200001/cmselect/cmenvtra/167/16707.htm .   It did, however, incorporate Tim Pharoah’s ‘5Cs’, as did TFL’s ‘Improving Walkability 2005’:  

“TfL supports the vision that London will become one of the world’s most walking friendly cities by 2015… [ie] a city where people select walking as their preferred choice of travel for health and to relax, and one which exhibits a high degree of ‘walkability’ ”


Tim Pharoah, Living Transport

John set out the Pedestrian Network Design Principles.

In a mere 10 minutes Kate Jeffery. Professor of Neuroscience at UCL and part of the Cognitive Navigation Group (CogNav), provided a fascinating account of what neuroscience can tell us about our sense of place, and sense of direction. She covered how the brain conceptualizes space, different kinds of spatial behaviour and how habit-based behaviour is controlled by the structure of the environment.

There are two relevant parts of the brain: straitum – its job is to take the things that the brain has learned about the outside world; the hippocampus – it’s the seat of our memory system, and long range navigation is based on it. 

In 1971 O’Keefe conducted an experiment on rats which revealed the existence of place cells. These are neurons in the hippocampus that fire when the animal occupies a specific location within its environment. As different place cells have different place fields (locations where they fire), they provide a cognitive map for the rat, and these have been found in humans too. 

There is also a compass in the brain: the head direction cells. These are neurons found in a number of brain regions that become active when the animal’s head points in a specific direction. Studying the “sense of direction” in the brain has told us some important things about how people perceive space. The head direction system can establish a direction within seconds, but needs linking information. Rotational symmetry (where the scene looks similar irrespective of which direction you look) is deadly for our sense of direction, whereas mirror symmetry, on the other hand, is no problem. The head direction system prefers distant landmarks which enable us to set our bearings. An imageable city, then, is one that feeds the brain with what it needs to make a map. A key message from the research is that signs are not enough. 

A flurry of questions followed, re maps – great for some people but not the only way; the importance of nodes on a route-based system, of landmarks and the regular reassurance you are still going in the right direction. What happens when you get lost: you don’t know which way round you are – your sense of direction is mismatched with the landmarks you see.

The point was made that pedestrians never complain; they have got so habituated to making it work. It is time they started to foment dissatisfaction and ‘Get Mad as Hell’

The conference ended with a series of quick-fire presentations. 

Jack Skillen, Team London Bridge, outlined The Low Line, which will be a ‘new walking destination for London’ along the length of the Victorian rail viaducts spanning Bankside, London Bridge and Bermondsey. It will connect diverse neighbourhoods, ‘linking existing and new hubs of creativity, entertainment, and industry along its course’. The first new sections of the Low Line opened at Old Union Yard Arches and Flat Iron Square and add to existing hubs at Borough Market, Maltby Street Market, and Spa Terminus. The Low Line was coined by Southwark resident David Stephens and not only creates new walking routes, but also public spaces and opportunities for businesses. It can become a key part of the CLWN. He urged everyone to become a Friend of the Low Line.

Jo Becker, TFL’s Independent Disability Advisory Group, who had travelled from Stoke-on-Trent, stressed the importance of an inclusive walking environment. 1 in 5 people identify as disabled. People with different disabilities had different needs; for example steep kerbs were a huge problem for people with mobility impairments. The central message for the CLWN: make it right for disabled people and it will be right for everyone. 

Jodie Eastwood, CEO, Knowledge Quarter (KQ), described the KQ as an organisation and a place. It was also over 100 places: the number of partners who belonged to the KQ, and KQ enabled them to talk to each other. KQ had 4 strategic priorities. Especially relevant to the CLWN,  one of the priorities was ‘Place’, and in 2016 KQ had undertaken a public realm audit. Messages which emerged were a road user hierarchy, air quality, signage, public transport and balanced change, including the needs of taxi users (not balanced too far in favour of motor vehicles, we hope (ed.) 

Alison Gregory, The Northbank BID, outlined the challenges faced in the Northbank area, eg. the large number of pedestrians competing for space with Villiers Street. The BID’s work included encouraging people to use clean air routes round the back-streets, avoiding the more polluted main roads – so reducing their exposure to pollution by 40%. Northbank had played a major role in developing the Strand/Aldwych scheme, and was working with Westminster Council now. And it was developing a communications strategy to get tourists to walk – many took a taxi from hotels on the Strand to get to Trafalgar Square.

Emily Candler, Director of the Exhibition Road Cultural Group, which is developing and promoting South Kensington as a ‘world-class centre of learning, innovation and inspiration in the arts and sciences’ described the Group as a partnership of the leading cultural and educational institutions in South Kensington to improve how it feels to visit, work, study and live in the area by enhancing the public space. This was important as 82 pc of  visitors arrived by public transport. The Group was also developing walking routes which can fit into the Central London Walking Network. This was a way of improving connections between the institutions, with the local community, and into other parts of Central London.

Joe Wills, Centre for London, described the Centre’s ‘Kerbside parking and management inquiry’. At the heart of this, is ‘kerbside competition’ (eg narrower pavements or less parking) and poor solutions to the problem.  The question is what to do with the very large numbers of cars. In London there were 1.2million resident and visitor parking spaces on street. 

Put end-to-end the cars on our streets would stretch 5,000km – ie from London to New York. The value of the land in London occupied by cars is a staggering £330bn!

Joe Wills, Centre for London

Unfortunately, car ownership even in Inner London is not falling fast enough, falling by barely 3 percent, in the last 14 years  (from 43.8 % in 2005/6 to 40.4 % 2017-18), and the amount of commercial vehicle km travelled has greatly increased. So other solutions are needed; eg the cost of parking – which varies in considerably. In Islington, you can get a parking permit for some cars for nothing!

Jo Chattoo, Sustrans, outlined the Healthy Streets Officers programme, and its links with the CLWN. There were 16 HSOs to cover the London boroughs. The programme has 4 strands: STARS, cycle training, national events and local initiatives. The programme was focused on behaviour change, and the local initiatives in particular could have an impact on the CLWN. Sustrans looked forward to working with London Living Streets to develop the routes, especially building on its work with schools. And there was the possibility of pointing to defects in infrastructure, leading to their improvement. 

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