A Walking Revolution

Articles, LondonUnlockedEditor

We reprint in full below an excellent article from Andrew Mickel on Comment Is Free:

This mayoral election has seen so many creative ideas for London transport that it's tempting to halt the voting and stage a Wacky Races-style contest to pick a mayor: bendy buses are taking on the resurgent Routemasters, Boris Johnson is touting a bus service to orbit the outer boroughs, while a tram service for Oxford Street is on the cards.

The problem with the transport debate having become so imaginative is that the "dull but worthy" ideas are being left on the shelf. Despite the fact that 40% of inner London trips are by foot, no one is talking about walking. This is perhaps the only time that the Northern Line will ever be referred to as sexy, but in the political stakes, it's an absolute lap dance in comparison to pedestrianism.

Unsexy as it may make me, I have walked everywhere since I moved to London. Being too short of cash for public transport and having a life-long fear of bikes hasn't exactly left me many options (having flown over a pair of handlebars as a child and losing all the skin on my face, I like my feet on the ground). Now I am a foot evangelist, getting places for free, and getting to see firsthand one of the world's finest cityscapes. But London is so unwelcoming for walkers I'm typically alone on most pavements.

Our twisting roads are a nightmare to navigate. The tube map divorces most people's sense of the city layout from reality. And the road network itself is exactly that - roads, designed for vehicles. Pedestrians are offered sparse directions, are held behind railings like herded cattle, and have to contend with an outdoor environment cluttered with road signs, adverts and ominous Veolia pavement cleaners that hoover up those who aren't nimble enough to escape. It is hardly inviting.

But while Ken Livingstone has been in office, real changes have started to be made for walkers. A Walkability Plan (pdf) from 2004 has led to a trial of improved signposts and mapping around Oxford Street and Regent Street, giving people the navigational tools to walk places themselves. Hopefully there will be a trickle-down effect - once people start to discover the layout of parts of the city and find out howcompressed zones one and two are, they will start to walk further. It cannot be a coincidence that it is people who work in the City, with their excellent signposting, that seem to walk farthest and widest. Livingstone's manifesto slates the signs to be rolled out on a wide basis.

Outside of inner London, town centres in the boroughs are also in Ken's manifesto to be improved with the manifesto (pdf). Cyclists comprise a far smaller portion of the population; his plans require a lot of investment for a relatively select group, compared to the universality and cheapness of improving walking. Besides, getting people off public transport and doing something for their health (lung-blackening pollution aside), getting people on the streets can bring a bit of life to the Ealings and Leytonstones of London. The right streetscapes for pedestrians are the same ones to make outdoor spaces more inviting. With all the will in the world, a man on a bike will not have the same effect.

The changes that are needed to make the city easier to walk in are, for want of a better word, pedestrian. It is unsurprising that the election run-up is focused on bigger ideas, and the sheer range of these in Livingstone's manifesto show that giving some consideration to walkers does not necessarily have to come at the expense of other forms of transport. For Johnson, though, forgetting to even suggest any plans for pedestrians is another sign of how sparse his transport plans are.