As lockdown eases and the rules become more garbled, right now, there are a plethora of walking and cycling schemes being proposed in London. They range from the ambitious to the just a little more than token. Have a look at the very ambitious and exciting proposals for a car free Central London emanating from the Mayor’s office. I’ve started some site visits here in London to see what they might look like on the ground.
One of the many challenges in trying to run the rule over these proposals is that I’ve got no idea what kind of city we’re going to see on the other side of this pandemic. Today millions of workers are currently on furlough and millions more are working/zooming at home – some in summer houses, others in hastily re-purposed bedrooms and, of course, some with laptops perched on ironing boards (who needs them, anymore?) in crowded flat shares.
A vast majority of the ‘home workers’ are white collar deskbound office workers and it looks like not much will likely change for this group in the near future. After all, unlike pubs, restaurants and non-essential retailers, offices were not closed by government decree. From encouraging all those who could to work from home the government is due to issue guidance on how to work safely in offices. The main thrust seems to be, for now, not to.
According to the Office for National Statistics around 1 in 20 (5%) workers did their jobs mainly from home in December 2019. When approached by the Economist, WillisTowersWatson, an advisory firm, forecast that in about a year’s time only around 25% of office workers will have returned to the office full time. I’ll let that sink in, and you can also try to match that up to the proposed scaling up of public transport to take 10% or 15% of its previous commuter traffic as lockdown eases. I realise not all public transport travellers are commuters, and that not all commuters are white collar workers, but now you can probably see that the shortfall in coping with this ‘new normal’ seems more do-able than before. It’s still a monumental task though.
So why are ‘walking’ and ‘cycling’ so often joined to each other in active travel schemes? Well they share many similarities, often summarised in these 6 bullet points:
- Health benefits
- Reduced congestion
- Low cost
- No air or noise pollution
- Similar barriers – motor traffic, missing routes, poor funding
- Similar basic needs
And now, I guess, we must add:
- Needs must
All these help to lump walking and cycling together in some unbreakable double act like Ant and Dec, French and Saunders, or flat screen TV (even if this last one is absurd nowadays as can you even buy a TV that isn’t flat screen ?!) But for me this is also the start point for why most of these schemes break down. If there are similarities, we also have differences and some of these differences are almost insoluble if we continue to couple walking and cycling together in a one size fits all approach. They go at different speeds, different efficiencies, different distances, with different take-ups, different demographics on different infrastructure provision.
Examination of the relationship between these often conflicting challenges is complex and requires more space than this blog allows but let’s quickly glance at different demographics with the help of some numbers. If I’m understanding TfL’s 2018 figures correctly there are 31.3 million journeys in Greater London every week (a week here being 7 days). Of these 6.7 million or 21.4% are on foot and that number has increased by 1.2 million since 2000. At the same time cycling makes up 0.7 million or 2.2% of these journeys. So next time you read something like doubling the number of people cycling, remember this is significant but is another just another 700,000 thousand journeys. At the same time, just a 1% increase in people walking equates to the same thing. And while you’re at it, give a little thought to what it might cost in infrastructure build – a staggering amount – to achieve this increase for cycling compared to the price tag to boost walking – very little.
Using these same numbers, 9.8 million or 31.3% are car journeys (not including taxi) and this figure has been slowly declining, a million down, since 2000. It is vital under these strategies that this is, at the very least maintained, and hopefully accelerated. I’ve said before that I see the removal or reduction of motorised is the single key most important factor in increasing the number of people walking and the figures are heavily weighted towards that being the most cost effective and immediate solution if you want to reduce public transport usage at the same time as maintaining a reduction in car usage.
So, given that a substantial portion of the proposal for central London includes car free roads – for walkers, cyclists, buses and emergency vehicles (I’m not sure whether taxis are included) – makes this is an ambitious possibly a revolutionary proposal. I walked the 2 mile route from Waterloo to Blackfriars and broadly speaking this would work very well with a reduced commuter load and a few signs. Current social distancing of 2 metres will make any journey on foot a challenge and with all the shops open along the route queueing would disturb the dynamic. But as I say I can see this being a viable option.
I’ll be drilling down a bit deeper about some of these proposals in London, hopefully outer and inner, in a future blog, Searching for the Goldilocks density. Until then, next time you’re out and about count the cyclists and then see how many of those are men. On their own admittance cycling sees the lack of take-up by women as a major challenge, and while you’re at it you might want to count how many come from the BAME community. The existing demographic of walkers more accurately mirrors our society, so once again, it makes far more sense to adequately fund this form of active travel, which is already popular with a wide spectrum of commuters, over and above all others, in a post pandemic world.
As Jessie J didn’t sing: “We just want to make the world walk”
Walk from Waterloo to Blackfriars: https://strava.app.link/0RXDdVHR06
The walking class hero lockdown days playlist: