Britons need to walk more – but their cities aren’t set up for it

Walking: basically a gym. Image: Getty.

An evidence review by Public Health England (PHE) hit the headlines last week, after the government agency found that a large chunk of middle aged adults are doing little to no exercise on a regular basis. According to PHE, 41 per cent of middle aged adults in England (defined as those aged 40-60) walk less than ten minutes at a brisk pace in an average month.

The coverage of this report is all focused on individual behaviour. Headlines covering the study proclaimed that “Millions of English adults failing to go on a brisk 10-minute walk every month”, and “Six million middle-aged people take no exercise”. As a nation, it seems we’ve forgotten the basics of leading a healthy lifestyle. We commute to work, we sit at our desks – and we find little time for exercise against the competing demands of work and family. As a result, our physical and mental health worsen. We need to get moving, and walking is a pretty simple way to start.

In light of the findings, PHE are trying to encourage us all to walk more frequently. The organisation has launched a campaign to get people to take up the challenge of walking briskly for 10 minutes a day, accompanied by an app to help us keep track.

The report acknowledges that previous official advice of doing two and a half hours of intensive activity a week doesn’t seem like a realistic goal for many people. On the other hand, walking is, in theory, an easy choice to make. It doesn’t require any specific equipment, you don’t need to be young and fit to walk, and you don’t need to go to a special place or pay any money.

But reasons why we do or don’t go for a walk are not just about personal choice or inclination. Structural factors influence whether we walk at all, how frequently and how far. Our activity levels are influenced by our social networks, whether we feel safe in our communities, our proximity to green space, and by the design of our cities, towns and neighbourhoods.


There is good evidence on this latter point – Including from PHE themselves. For example, the design and planning of an area can encourage or discourage walking and cycling. A spatial planning review from PHE highlighted the importance of neighbourhood ‘walkability’ in increasing physical activity. Elsewhere, our evidence review on urban design shows that providing safe and convenient footpaths encourages people to walk and cycle more.

How active we are is also influenced by our socioeconomic status. Barriers to physical activity affect some groups more than others and social deprivation affects our capacity to go for a swim, walk or run. Children in deprived areas are nine times less likely to have access to green space or somewhere to play.

To reduce health inequalities, we need to recognise and reduce the barriers to participation. Some of these barriers are the cost of childcare, the cost of transport, and social isolation. London is the third greenest city in the world – but a single mum who has no-one to go for a walk with and no easy transport route to a park faces bigger barriers than others.

Directors of public health are based in local government. As a result there’s an opportunity to do something about this: councils have a major role in influencing some of these factors. Planning, housing, transport, leisure and parks are all core local government responsibilities. We’ve found in our current public health research project that directors of public health across England work with a range of council departments and voluntary sector agencies to improve population health.

There is nevertheless an opportunity to do more, to join up work with the organisations and people that can help tackle the barriers to improving health across all groups. Recognising that the problem is about more than just individual behaviour will be a good place to start.

Lucy Terry is a senior researcher at the New Local Government Network.

 
 
 
 

What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.


Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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