Why don’t we take walking more seriously?

Walking is the universal transport mode. It is a mode of travel in its own right and a recreational activity; often both at the same time. Walking is also an essential component of many public transport and even car journeys, so even if the journeys we make are not purely ‘walking journeys’ walking is very much part of our everyday lives.

So ubiquitous is walking that we often take it for granted. Even when it is the sole mode for a given journey, the walk itself can appear incidental; simply the means to an end. Thanks to the DfT’s National Travel Survey, we have some high-level measures of how people travel. Through this we know that, as a mode in its own right, 22% of all trips are on foot, compared with 1% by bike. However, we also know that an astonishing 21% of trips under a mile are by car/van, jumping to 58% for journeys up to two miles.

In terms of a finer-grained view of local travel behaviour, walking is too often neglected. We count motorised vehicles using everything from inductive loops to number-plate recognition cameras. We are starting to measure cycle movements in similar ways. However, regular and robust counting of walking activity is less common, and is not commensurate with walking’s overall trip-share. Yet, if knowing the number of car movements is part of understanding the most appropriate solutions for moving vehicles along roads, why not for those on foot? Where cars and walkers share the same streets, how can we allocate space equitably between them if we don’t have a complete picture of how all users use these spaces?

This lack of visibility also matters because sustainable travel, and particularly walking, is still argued by many to be significantly underfunded. Under the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS), Government has directly committed £1.38 per head, when Parliament has called for a starting level of £10 for cycling alone. Of the CWIS funding identified from all sources, around 20% of it is dedicated cycling funding. None is dedicated walking funding.

Many authorities struggle to justify reimagining streets such that they cater better for all users, especially when this might mean re-allocating space. Although studies by Living Streets and others have shown that more people walk to the shops than drive, many retailers continue to place high emphasis on features support motorised access. Our industry commonly lacks the tools and data to justify the local value of walking.

DfT should be congratulated for CWIS and its ambition to make walking and cycling natural choices for short journeys. However, both in terms of funding and the strategy itself (the CWIS foreword mentions cycling nearly twice as much as walking, for example) it is clear that walking does not share an equal billing with cycling. While both modes are complementary in terms of achieving the stated ambition, walking and cycling are not the same. They sometimes come into conflict, just like other modes, and the approaches required to deliver good solutions for one are not the same as for the other.

In the future walking and cycling might be better served by separate but related strategies. In the shorter term, we need to raise walking’s profile. Measuring activity is part of this, quite another is understanding why people move the way they do. Why, for example, do people walk where they do – or not where they don’t? What is it about the structure of walking networks, their quality and the quality of the spaces and environment they pass through that encourages walking certain routes and not others? We may lack robust localised walking activity data, but data about the places we live is available in increasing quantity and quality. At SYSTRA we are using this data to better understand ‘walkability’, so that we can answer these questions more robustly, and we have demonstrated a correlation between the structure of a walking networks and pedestrian movements through them.

Understanding walkability, and with it the propensity to walk, can help us shape towns and cities that are better places to move around, and which can reap the many rewards that come from this.