The words passionate and pedestrian do not often appear in the same sentence. While other modes of transport have their enthusiasts (the train spotters, petrol heads etc of this world), walking is something that does not usually excite.
Indeed the very word pedestrian can have the meaning of prosaic and dull.
It is all too easy to take walking for granted. It is something most of us do. Nearly a quarter of all trips are on foot. In 2012, the average number of walking trips was 212 trips per person per year and 3% of our total distance travelled is on foot – about 200 miles a year.
So do we need to do more? I would say a passionate “yes”, based on the following.
Let’s start with the economy. Research has shown that office space in walkable commercial districts commands 74% higher rental rates than offices in traditional business parks. Absenteeism rates among staff who walk (and cycle) are lower than for staff who drive. Active commuters are better able to concentrate and under less strain than when travelling by car. And pedestrians spend more - people who walk to town centres across London spend more per week than those who come by bus, train, tube, bike or car, further contributing to a buoyant local economy.
Turning to health, the built environment should support healthy choices. We need to design physical activity back in to our everyday lives – incentivise and facilitate walking as regular daily transport. More than a quarter of the UK’s population exercise for less than 30 minutes per week and 64% of adults are overweight or obese (BMI of 25 or over) – in some local authority areas the figure is as high as 75%. Physical inactivity is the 4th largest cause of disease and disability in the UK. Regular moderate-intensity activity helps manage over 20 chronic conditions including coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, cancer, obesity and musculoskeletal conditions.
Transport systems have a highly significant role to play in helping to tackle the major public health challenges our towns and cities face and local authorities in England now have responsibilities for public health. Nearly one quarter of car journeys are within one mile and over 40% are within two miles – walkable distances. And if they were walked or cycled, that would mean most motorists would achieve the recommended level of physical activity – and congestion would be reduced.
Walking also improves mental health. Inactive people have three times the rate of moderate to severe depression compared to active people. Recent research has shown that people who walk to work are happier – an active commute leads to a higher level of wellbeing. A GP in Wigan who prescribed walking to his patients found that 29% of them were able to give up anti-depressants.
Walking is also the form of transport that has the lowest impact on the environment. Active travel reduces noise, air pollution and carbon dioxide emissions. And good parks and green infrastructure can help create better quality places and higher value properties
And finally there are social benefits. More people walking makes neighbourhoods safer with increased social interaction and social capital – people who walk are more likely to know and trust their neighbours and be socially engaged. And walking cuts class boundaries; it is available to almost everyone and virtually cost free.
Walking should be at the heart of our decisions about the built environment: walkable cities are better cities. There are economic benefits for developers, employers and retailers, as well as a host of health benefits, both physical health and mental health. It’s the lowest-carbon, least polluting form of transport. It’s a great social leveler and having people walking through urban spaces makes them safer for others. And best of all – it makes people happy!
- Susan Claris is an associate director at Arup. Follow @susanclaris on Twitter.