Walkability in the UK: overview and next steps

May 12, 2015

Walking is good. Fundamentally good.

If you are a health freak, please acknowledge that walking is good not only for your bones but also for your brain: reducing stress and risks of strokes and diabetes, increasing memory skills and learning abilities. If you’re a miser, walking is equally good for your purse, for you save a lot of money on transport – especially if you’re a London based miser.  If you’re a philanthropist, walking is also good for climate change and the economy in general.

UK decision-makers are becoming more and more conscious of the wide-ranging benefits of walking but also of the absolute necessity to adapt our urban environments to changing demographics, including ageing population and families less and less likely to move to suburban homes. Hence, walkability schemes have been blooming all over the country for the past decade or so. They can broadly be split into three kinds: planning awareness, design innovation and cultural change.

Walking capacity is intrinsically bound to land uses: mixed-use developments encourage close proximity between houses, workplaces, shopping and recreational areas, therefore decreasing the need to use public or individual transportation. Furthermore, walkability can be encouraged by designing pedestrian-friendly areas: de-cluttered sidewalks, crossings that align with desire lines, gamified foot-travels and so on. Last but not least, encouraging walkability requires a huge cultural change: your mode of commuting is not likely to change if you change job, no matter where the job is actually located. In that respect, induction packages at the NHS now include walks of the surrounding areas to increase walkability awareness.

This is all very good news. However, talking with professionals in the industry has led me to believe that this recent enthusiasm still struggles to understand its objectives and its assessment tools. For instance, in my last blog I encouraged cautiousness when talking about shared spaces, a very good example of pedestrian friendly scheme. Faith Martin from TfL [1] did not say anything different when she explained that shared spaces should be not be an objective per se but the result of a process that puts the accent on understanding that each location is unique and, that, consequently, shared spaces are not a one-size-fits-all solution .

On the assessment side of things, the picture is equally grim. Whilst innovative ways for determining desire paths, such as big data analysis, provides new powerful tools, traditional methods for assessing pedestrian environments are often perceived as both laborious by being too exhaustive and –paradoxically- incomplete. Finally, there is an on-going debate about the degree of inclusiveness in the decision making process, leading to costly pedestrian schemes with limited durability, due to poor understanding of context, choice of materials and (lack of) proper monitoring.

So what are the next steps for walkability in the UK? First and foremost the absolute necessity to keep spreading the word: walking is good. Secondly, knowledge dissemination will only become effective when planning awareness, design smartness and cultural change are integrated at a strategic level. Finally, it is crucial that policy-making happens through an inclusive and democratic process, balancing and making the most of users’ experiences and input from technical advisors.

[1] http://www.ciht.org.uk/en/document-summary/index.cfm/docid/1E697D70-E21E-4C57-93EF07112245FB8C