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Why getting London moving means getting London walking
19 August 2020
As London begins its journey to recovery from the impact of Covid-19, the need to get more people walking and cycling more often is one thing that City Hall and Number 10 agree on. The Mayor and Transport for London’s (TfL’s) ambitious Streetspace for London programme and the government’s £2 billion plans to tackle green-house gas emissions, obesity and poor mental health all emphasise the importance of walking and cycling. Yet while it’s always bicycles that grab the headlines, it’s walking that is the ‘go to’ mode of choice in the capital, with 6.7 million trips a day compared to cycling’s 700,000.
Here’s the thing though: while those walking ‘trips’ sound like a lot, they are usually one element of a longer journey which will often only take people as far as the bus stop, the nearest train station or even their car. That’s why initiatives like Streetspace for London are so important. While the media headlines focus on cycling, car free zones, widened pavements and low traffic neighbourhoods are also vital in encouraging more, and longer, journeys on foot – after all, who wants to walk along polluted, car-dominated streets?
Beyond its work on Streetspace, TfL has been producing great walking initiatives for much of its 20-year existence. TfL and London’s borough councils have done much to improve the physical experience of walking in London in recent years, from widened pavements to Legible London’s distinctive yellow on street wayfinding signage, to new developments that have greatly improved permeability of access for pedestrians in central London. Their long-standing walking tube map has recently been supplemented by one focused just on walking distances in the West End (hint: things are really very close together), and the walking section on the TfL website is full of useful resources, including a walking app and downloadable maps. They’ve run great marketing campaigns, and even offered regular free guided walks… but until now it’s been difficult to shift the dial – yes, walking is the number one trip of choice, but its 23 percent increase since 2000 is dwarfed by cycling’s 144 per cent growth. What to do?
As with cycling, one of the best ways to get people walking further, and more often, as a form of transport, is to enjoy walking for leisure first; anecdotal evidence suggests that is something people started doing a lot more of at the start of the pandemic, as gyms closed and options for out of home entertainment dwindled. Luckily for Londoners, well-maintained walking routes are much closer to their doorsteps than they might think. The UK is full of world-famous long-distance walking routes, but did you know London itself has one of the largest walking networks of any city in the world?
Of the seven key walking routes in London, the 78-mile long Capital Ring, which was completed in 2005, is the jewel in the TfL Walk London Network crown. Forming a circle around inner and central London, the route is one of the UK’s most accessible long-distance walking routes, easily reached from almost every corner of the capital, and is a great introduction to both walking for leisure and to parts of London people may not have visited before. In fact, the Capital Ring take in some of London’s most loved green spaces, from the woodlands of southeast London to Queens Wood at Highgate and Richmond Park – the largest urban parkland in Europe. The Thames, River Brent, Welsh Harp Reservoirs and River Lee Navigation provide picturesque waterside backdrops to the path, while Crystal Palace, Horsden Hill and Harrow on the Hill provide some of the best views. Building and infrastructure fans can feast on over 500 years of history, from the Tudor-era Eltham Palace, the Georgian splendour of Beckenham Place, Joseph Bazalgette’s Victorian ‘cathedral of sewage’, all the way to the 1900s Woolwich Foot Tunnel and our 21st century Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park.
TfL has done much to encourage more walking, as well as cycling, in London in the past two decades, but for all that the single most exciting opportunity has come now, and tragically it’s a direct result of the pandemic that has taken the lives of thousands of people and ravaged our economy. As we build back better, the Mayor and TfL have taken the unprecedented step of reallocating road space now with the commitment they will consult later. A retrospective consultation process has been promised, including events later this year, and it is vital that Londoners get to have their say in an open and transparent process. In the meantime, communities across London are getting the opportunity to experience their local neighbourhood without cars — streets that have been dominated by cars for decades have been reclaimed by families out for a walk and children on their bikes. It’s transformative, and bodes well for TfL’s next 20 years.
Active travel is just one of the transport topics that will be discussed at this year’s London Infrastructure Summit, we hope you can join the debate.
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