Shanks’s Pony: In which English & Welsh cities are commuters most likely to walk to work?

Some people walking. Image: Getty.

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

There are a number of characteristics that would probably help persuade a city’s residents to walk to work. Lots of green space. Lots of rivers or canals. General picturesque-ness.

But one of the big ones, surely, must be size. In a city of 100,000, people are more likely to live close to their office than in a city of 1m people. That stands to reason, right?

And so, we've plotted population size against the proportion of the population that walk to work each day (both sets of figures are from the 2011 census). We've removed London, for no other reason than its sheer size means it warps the graph. For what it's worth, around 8.7 per cent of Londoners walk to work, very slightly less than in Birmingham.

Here's the result:

Which doesn’t look like much of a correlation.

It's true that bigger cities – those of over 500,000 people – tend to have relatively few walking commuters. But Bristol breaks this pattern (14.9 per cent of Bristolians walk to work, which is relatively high).

And there are plenty of small cities where hardly anyone walks. Gloucester, Grimsby, Newport: all have populations of less than 160,000, yet fewer than one in eight workers walk to walk.

It seems that being a big city can reduce the number of walkers, but being a small one is no guarantee that people will get off their backsides and make the effort.

So, bang goes that theory.

Here are the 10 cities where people are most likely to walk:

Source: Centre for Cities/ONS Census. Due to issues of comparability, data is not available for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The old university towns (Oxford, Cambridge, York) are all in there, which isn’t surprising because they’re generally nice places to walk around. There are a few seaside towns (Brighton, Hastings, Plymouth), and a couple in East Anglia (Ipswich and Norwich – maybe being flat helps).

But there's no obvious pattern, if we're honest. They're mostly quite small... except Bristol and Cardiff, which aren't. Answers on a postcard.

What about the other end of the league table? Here’s the bottom 10.

Source: Centre for Cities/ONS Census. Due to issues of comparability, data is not available for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

And here there is a pattern. Fully half of these cities have one big thing in common.  Can you see it?

Okay, we'll come to that in a second: let's note some other characteristics here first. Two of these cities (London, Birmingham) are among England's largest: a lot of people will simply live too far from their workplaces to walk in.

Several of the others double as suburbs of bigger cities. Wigan is on the edge of Manchester, Crawley and Adlershot are dormitory towns for London, Birkenhead is in some ways an arm of Liverpool, even if the Mersey means there is  literally no way to get between them on foot. So that's probably a factor in keeping walking numbers down, too.

But five of these cities have something else in common. Peterborough, Crawley, Telford, Milton Keynes, Warrington – every one of them is a “new town”, one of the series of new communities planned and built in the decades after the Second World War.

Those decades were also the period in which car ownership became all but universal: these are cities created at a time when roads were the future. It's hard to see that as a coincidence.

Here's an interactive map of this data. Hover the mouse over any city and it'll give you the figures.



Cycling on London’s Euston Road is still a terrifying experience

Cyclists on the Euston Road. Image: Jonn Elledge.

The New Road, which skirted the northern boundaries of London’s built up area, first opened in the 1750s. Originally, it was intended to link up outlying villages and provide a route to drive sheep and cows to the meat market at Smithfield without having to pass through the congested city centre. 

As with bypasses and ring roads the world over, however, it increasingly became congested in its own right. Today, you won’t often find livestock on the route, which is now Marylebone, Euston and City roads. But you will find up to six lanes of often stationary buses, cabs, and private vehicles. In a city whose centre is largely free of multi-lane highways, London’s northern ring road has long been the sort of abomination that you avoid at all costs.

But now, somewhat surprisingly, the road is seeing yet another new use. Earlier this week, the first phase of a temporary cycle lane opened on the Euston Road, the middle section of the route which runs for roughly a mile. As London rethinks roads throughout the city, this addition to the cycling map falls solidly into the category of streets that didn't seem like candidates for cycling before the pandemic.

It is, to be clear, temporary. That’s true of many of the Covid-led interventions that Transport for London is currently making, though those in the know will often quietly admit to hoping they end up being permanent. In this case, however, the agency genuinely seems to mean it: TfL emphasized in its press release that the road space is already being allocated for construction starting late next year and that "TfL will work with local boroughs to develop alternate routes along side streets" when the cycle lane is removed.

At lunchtime on Friday, I decided to try the lane for myself to understand what an unlikely, temporary cycle lane can accomplish. In this case it's clear that the presence of a lane only accomplishes so much. A few key things will still leave riders wanting:

It’s one way only. To be specific, eastbound. I found this out the hard way, after attempting to cycle the Euston Road westbound, under the naive impression that there was now a lane for me in which to do this. Neither I nor the traffic I unexpectedly found myself sharing space with enjoyed the experience. To be fair, London’s cycling commissioner Will Norman had shared this information on Twitter, but cyclists might find themselves inadvertently mixing with multiple lanes of much, much bigger vehicles.

It radically changes in width. At times the westbound route, which is separated from the motor traffic by upright posts, is perhaps a metre and a half wide. At others, such as immediately outside Euston station, it’s shared with buses and is suddenly four or five times that. This is slightly vexing.

It’s extremely short. The publicity for the new lane said it would connect up with other cycle routes on Hampstead Road and Judd Street (where Cycleway 6, the main north-south crosstown route, meets Euston Road). That’s a distance of roughly 925m. It actually runs from Gower Street to Ossulton Street, a distance of barely 670m. Not only does the reduced length mean it doesn’t quite connect to the rest of the network, it also means that the segregated space suddenly stops:

The junction between Euston Road and Ousslston Street, where the segregated lane suddenly, unexpectedly stops. Image: Jonn Elledge.


It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the new lane is not yet seeing many users. Each time I cycled the length of it I saw only a handful of other cyclists (although that did include a man cycling with a child on a seat behind him – not something one would have expected on the Euston Road of the past).

Though I hesitate to mention this because it feeds into the car lobby’s agenda, it was also striking that the westbound traffic – the side of the road which had lost a lane to bikes – was significantly more congested than the eastbound. If the lane is extended, it could, counterintuitively, help, by removing the unexpected pinch points at which three lanes of cars suddenly have to squeeze into two.

There’s a distinctly unfinished air to the project – though, to be fair, it’s early days. The eastbound lane needs to be created from scratch; the westbound extended. At that point, it would hopefully be something TfL would be keen enough to talk about that cyclists start using it in greater numbers – and drivers get the message they should avoid the Euston Road.

The obvious explanation for why TfL is going to all this trouble is that TfL is in charge of the Euston Road, and so can do what it likes there. Building cycle lanes on side nearby roads means working with the boroughs, and that’s inevitably more difficult and time consuming.

But if the long-term plan is to push cyclists via side roads anyway, it’s questionable whether all this disruption is worth it. A segregated cycle lane that stops without warning and leaves you fighting for space with three lanes of buses, lorries, and cabs is a cycle lane that’s of no use at all.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.