Stand up for pedestrians – the forgotten travellers

Image: Matt Cornock via Flickr.

Almost all of us walk somewhere every day of our lives. According to the UK’s most recent National Travel Survey 22 per cent of all trips are undertaken on foot – and walking continues to be the second-most important form of transport for all journeys after travel by car or van.

When it comes to short trips of less than a mile, walking is totally dominant, accounting for over 78 per cent . One third of all trips less than five miles in length are also on foot.

By contrast, cycling accounts for just 1.5 per cent of all journeys. Even if we only look at all trips under five miles, cycling still makes up less than 2 per cent of journeys.

But you wouldn’t get this impression from listening to politicians, reading policy documents, or observing investment in infrastructure. While both cycling and walking improve personal health and the environment, one gets far more attention than the other. The government has just released its response to a major consultation on its “vision for cycling and walking”, for instance. The document’s name? Cycling Delivery Plan.

Although walking is given some consideration in the detail of the document, the priority is clear. While cycling is being actively promoted as a healthy and sustainable form of urban transport, walking remains largely neglected in terms of active policy and investment.

Look at London’s “cycle superhighways”, for instance, announced earlier this year to much fanfare. These highways follow significant increases in trips by bike in central London following investment in new infrastructure promoted by the London mayor.

Such investment is of course welcome and long overdue, and much remains to be done as cycle infrastructure remains poor in most other parts of the country. But the fact cycling is beginning to be considered an important form of urban transport that needs to be planned for highlights the fact that travel on foot is not given such recognition.

Flawed furniture

It can, of course, be argued that pedestrians do already have their own dedicated infrastructure – in urban areas at least – in the form of pavements, pedestrian zones, and crossings. For the most part we accept these conditions as adequate and do not question how they might be better. However, a closer look suggests that this is rarely the case.

Do as you’re told. Image: Elliott Brown via Flickr.

In most places, road space continues to be dominated by, and planned for, motor vehicles, and people on foot are crammed on to pavements that are often too narrow. Pedestrians are made to wait for long periods to cross busy roads, exposed to traffic noise and emissions, and then given insufficient time to cross before the lights change to keep the traffic moving.

Poorly placed (and often unnecessary) street furniture, together with inconsiderately (and potentially illegally) parked cars often obstruct the pavement, while pedestrian surfaces are often poorly maintained and rarely cleared of leaves or snow and ice. Try to negotiate the average urban pavement with a child’s buggy or in a wheelchair and the difficulties become all too obvious. Poor pedestrian infrastructure disadvantages all those who do not have access to, or choose not to use, a motor vehicle.

Sleepwalking into car cities

We’ve got into this situation because walking is taken for granted. Such a simple activity has been largely ignored in the planning process; it is seen as making few demands on the environment and thus needs only a minimum of facilities. In contrast, because motor vehicles make much greater demands on the environment their needs have been prioritised.

Pedestrians also suffer from being classed as “walkers” – those who walk for pleasure rather than as a means of transport. The cultural dominance and convenience of the motor vehicle has meant that urban space has been disproportionately allocated towards cars and away from pedestrians. When walking for anything other than recreation is increasingly seen as abnormal, cars will always win.

I recently headed some research in four English cities which clearly demonstrated this. As one respondent in Leeds said “you feel unusual walking”. Most respondents enjoyed walking, and did walk sometimes, but they frequently encountered unnecessary difficulties and inconveniences. The problem was summarised neatly by a Lancaster respondent: “That road is awful, the pavement is very narrow, and in autumn it’s covered in leaves so you slip over half the time, it’s terrifying. But by car the road is fine”.

Walking is a cheap, simple, healthy and environmentally friendly way of travelling short distances. It is something most people enjoy doing, but our cities are built in ways that often make life difficult and unpleasant for pedestrians.

Walking needs to be taken more seriously as a means of transport (and not only as a form of exercise or leisure) – and should be actively planned for and given priority, as is beginning to happen with cycling. If more people walked and fewer people drove, it would not only benefit personal health but also cities would be more pleasant for all.

Colin Pooley is an Emeritus Professor of Social and Historical Geography at Lancaster University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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.