Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Walking in Cities

Last Thursday I went to London and, as is my habit, walked everywhere. It is an old city that has grown in a largely haphazard way with a mixture of small winding streets, alleyways and main thoroughfares best seen on foot. It is fascinating to look at the buildings as messages from the past. The trick though is to always look up. At ground level shops will be branded and familiar but above that you can see the sort of building it is.
I walked a total of 9.5 miles, it didn't feel that far. The constant variety of building and the ebb and flows of the crowds meant I paid more attention to my surroundings rather than how far I was going.  By walking I felt I was part of the life of the city, in a direct way, as cities are by definition places where people gather.
I need to find out is people in London walk more than those in other parts, where a car might be more convenient. One of the scenes I remember for Morgan Spurlock's Supersize This is him remarking on the low exercise levels of most Americans and saying that it was less of a problem for him because living in New York he tended to walk more. But I think the contrast will be less stark in this country because of the age of our settlements and the fact that they were not designed around the car (apart from Milton Keynes, obviously).
Nevertheless getting people to walk more is still a problem. If the exercise target, to improve health, is 30 minutes moderate activity a day, walking is the easiest solution. It can be incorporated in day to day activities so easily it is a puzzle everybody doesn't do it as a matter of course. But they don't, even in the most active age group (16-24) little more than half reach the activity target. 
The average number of miles walked in a year in the UK is the second lowest in Europe and I find it truly shocking that 20% of all journeys of less than a mile are done by car. Less than a mile!
It is now widely recognised that active travel is good both for the nation’s health and the general feel of our towns and cities and more needs to be done to encourage it. It is hard to find a voice raised against this idea, but unfortunately it is one of those issues where everyone can agree the principle without wanting to do much about it. (Case in point in the name of easing out traffic flow for motors Transport for London has been taking out pedestrian crossings and reducing the time people have to cross the road). If we were serious about active travel it would be at the top of planning considerations, not a desirable extra.
In 2010, just before the election the last government produced a strategy document on the subject (Active Travel Strategy), which was a joint publication by the Department of Health and Department of Transport. Although it was strong on intention and weak on concrete proposals, at least it showed there should be some commitment to the idea and lays out the reasons why it is important. However I am not sure the commitment is felt by the current government as the document has been removed from the Department of Transport’s website. We will see.
Ultimately, of course, it is all a matter of  personal choice and a general attitude that walking is both easy, unremarkable, and the natural way to make short journeys. On my day in London that is exactly what I felt.
P.S. I popped into the Tate Modern to see the installation by Tacita Dean. The picture gives some idea of the scale.

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