Walking in cities with dignity

About the author
Ben Plowden is Director of the Pedestrians Association (whose livingstreets campaign was launched in August 2001). From 1991-97, he worked for the Council for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) on minerals, energy and rural economic issues.
England’s second city, Birmingham, is reinventing itself. For years, roads and traffic dominated the city, in a perverse homage to the regional economic importance of the motor industry. Ring roads and flyovers were built. Residents and shoppers were forced into ugly, threatening subways to avoid interrupting the traffic. The huge Bullring complex, surrounded by a massive gyratory, became a symbol for how cities should defer to the needs of cars and lorries.

But since the mid-1980s, Birmingham has been quietly transformed. The city centre is largely traffic-free. High quality paving and street furniture have replaced ugly tarmac and seven-metre high traffic signs. Major roads are being downgraded and replaced by tree-lined boulevards. New street-level crossings have been put in. The city centre, artificially constrained by main roads, has spread out, driven by rapid economic development; its quality now matches many in Europe. The streets throng with people even in winter, confounding those who believe that a thriving street life requires a Mediterranean climate or culture.

The city is not perfect. Its planners and politicians will admit that more needs to be done in the city centre. And it will be some time before Birmingham’s inner neighbourhoods or its suburban high streets enjoy a renaissance similar to the central area. But Birmingham’s decision-makers have discovered what the owners of out-of-town shopping centres have always known – that if you want people to go somewhere and spend time and money, you have to give them a safe, attractive and people-centred environment. In Ken Worpole’s phrase, the “experience of movement” for people on foot has to be a positive one. In short, you have to put pedestrians first.

Transport bound by feet

And indeed, pedestrians are central to Birmingham’s reinvention. So it is striking that the city does not have a walking strategy. Instead, it has a regeneration strategy. This focuses on bringing jobs, retailing and housing back into the city centre. At the heart of the strategy is improving the public realm. The city is creating living streets, places and spaces for walking and, crucially, stopping. Birmingham’s recent history shows that the importance of walking goes far beyond its role as a way of getting from A to B. The walkability of a community is a key indicator of its social, economic and cultural health.

And walking is of course important also for daily travel. As Ken Worpole pointed out in How you travel is who you are, walking is numerically (along with driving) the most popular form of transport. It is the dominant mode for short journeys, accounting for eighty per cent of trips under a mile. And it provides the link at one or both ends of most bus, train and tram trips. This most neglected of modes is the glue binding together the transport network. People in Britain spend a lot of time in the street on foot.

But while everybody walks, some people walk more than others. The key issue is whether someone has access to a car. People who cannot drive due to physical ability, lack of a driving licence or of a car depend most on walking. Children walk more than adults, with girls under seventeen walking more than any other group. Older adults walk more than younger ones, and women walk more than men. Access to a car is closely linked to household income so, not surprisingly, people on low incomes walk more than those from richer households. Nearly eight out of ten journeys of people in low-income, non car-owning households involve a walk.

Walking is also linked to where people live. People in urban areas walk more than those in suburbs or the countryside, with the highest levels of walking in Inner London at over forty per cent of all trips. Whether people walk is also influenced by their experience of movement. Walking down a typical British street, it is not surprising that walking has been in slow, seemingly inexorable decline over the past twenty years. It is not a nice experience. The noise and fumes of traffic assail the senses. Cracked flagstones threaten a nasty fall. Graffiti, litter, petty vandalism and fear of crime create unease. The poor state of Britain’s streets has obvious implications for walking as a form of transport. If streets are dirty and dangerous, anyone with a choice will drive rather than walk down them.

Not just pavements, but spaces

But the impact of a degraded public realm goes much wider than that. It has a direct impact on people’s quality of life. Poll after poll shows profound public dissatisfaction with the poor quality of the public realm. This is matched only by frustration at the public authorities’ apparent inability to do anything about it. While this dissatisfaction is widespread, recent research from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation shows it is most pronounced in the poorest communities and in towns and cities. In these areas, litter, dog fouling, vandalism, graffiti and fear of crime have a pernicious effect on local quality of life. This has profound implications for government policy on social exclusion and urban renewal.

People on low incomes and those in urban areas walk the most. They also encounter the worst environments. This is starkly illustrated by the fact that children from the poorest households are over four times more likely to be killed as pedestrians than those from the richest ones. The poor state of many streets and public spaces adds to the pressure on economically mobile households to leave run-down city neighbourhoods for cleaner, safer suburbs or the countryside beyond.

Improving the public realm is therefore essential if we want to restore the social and economic vitality of our towns and cities. The British government has woken up to this fact. Tony Blair made a landmark speech in April about what he called “liveability”. This recognised that although health and education remain the “big issues”, they only affect a relatively small number of people. Mr. Blair made the point that “the one public service we all use everyday are the streets where we live”. And the dirty, degraded state of these streets is a constant reminder of the failure of public service delivery.

So how do we create living streets, streets where people walk and spend time through choice rather than necessity? We need to plan for high-density neighbourhoods, with homes, shops, schools, libraries and parks within easy walking distance. The volume and speed of traffic should be reduced on residential streets and local high streets where people shop and socialise. Roads need to be re-designed to reflect the fact that they are social and cultural spaces as well as traffic routes. More visible policing is essential, supported by new street and neighbourhood wardens. And we have to tackle the environmental blight caused by litter, graffiti, dog fouling and petty vandalism.

Creating living streets is not rocket science. But it will require new ways of planning and managing local services. A seamless web of street sweeping, policing, rubbish collection and traffic calming needs to replace the chaotic lack of co-ordination in most communities. The rewards for such a programme would be great and would most benefit those on low incomes. Traffic casualties would be reduced. Children would enjoy greater freedom. The quality of life would improve in communities throughout the land.

How we travel is indeed who we are. To walk is to be a human being, a social animal with senses tuned by evolution to the smallest subtleties of our environment. We have allowed this environment to become ugly, dirty and threatening. It is little wonder that fewer and fewer of us choose to spend time in it. Birmingham shows that there is indeed another way.