MobilityWalkingWhy Are We Not Talking About Walking? The Challenge to Make Cities...

Why Are We Not Talking About Walking? The Challenge to Make Cities Walkable

Tanja Polonyi
Tanja Polonyi
I can't imagine my daily life without my bike (and coffee)! But cycling often means fighting over space on the road with car drivers.  That's why I want cyclists and pedestrians to get the space they deserve. Give me green spaces, walkable streets, and fresh air!

Walking comes naturally to most people; hence, many of us don’t view it as an issue to consider in city planning. We’ll take a look at all the challenges walking activists are facing to understand why walking has, unjustifiably, been put in the backseat of urban mobility for so long.

If you think of urban mobility and modes of transport in a city, what are the typical images that come to mind? Here’s a wild guess: there are cars, driving, stuck in traffic, or parking, and there’s metros, scooters, bicycles, trams, and busses. However, walking probably didn’t feature. 

How is it that, even though each and every one of us walks or rolls every day (at least to a certain extent), walking is not part of the discussion?

Challenge 1: The Importance of Walking Is Underestimated

We hardly even realise when we are walking. We’ve been doing it our whole lives and as a species for millennia. In fact, it is the oldest form of human transportation. What happens, though, when something has been done for years and years? It becomes a matter of fact, something we do axiomatically and without question. 

But why is that a concern? Looking at urban areas, the problem occurs in the political sphere; mobility is a political problem demanding political solutions. 

With most people not seeing walking as a political issue or as an issue that is of interest for cities at all, there is nearly no political traction. Consequently, engaging people and getting politicians to support walkability measures is incredibly difficult. 

Mário Alves, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Pedestrians, describes this challenge as follows: as the majority of people naturally walk in their daily lives, “they don’t have a political identity. Cyclists feel that they are cyclists, pedestrians, they don’t feel they are pedestrians.” Without a political identity, it is difficult to be seen as a crucial interest group. 

Speaking of cyclists…

Challenge 2: Sharing the Spotlight with Cyclists

It is what it is, cyclists have a bigger lobby in the field of sustainable mobility. Pedestrians, though being a majority, have no political identity. The opposite goes for cyclists.

In some cities, less than 10% of people actually cycle, but they view themselves clearly as cyclists. They are outspoken about the lacking infrastructure and have a big advocate community backing them. Cyclists are enthusiastic, and cycling activism is much stronger than walking activism.

Cities, specifically politicians, tend to focus on the needs of cyclists as they have more political traction, and this topic has more potential for voter approval. In many cities’ transport strategies, walking is clumped together with cycling, not viewed as an independent issue in need of investment. Budgets are allocated to cycling and walking combined – but pedestrians and cyclists have different needs and therefore require their own particular measures.

As Mário puts it very eloquently: “Make yourself an alliance with cyclists because cyclists are your friends […] At the same time […] keep a distance from cyclists because they are so enthusiastic, that if you do an organisation about walking and cycling, you end up only speaking about cycling.” When working with cyclists, keep a focus on the joint fight for the reallocation of space.

This leads us to the next challenge…

Challenge 3: Road Safety and Space Reallocation

Even though road safety has been part of city planning conversations for a long time now, crashes and fatalities involving pedestrians have increased internationally. Implementing a better infrastructure should be the next obvious move, right?

Sadly, many streets are still designed to be wider and straighter for the benefit of those actually responsible for accidents – cars. Road safety is one of the main reasons people don’t walk. Poor path maintenance, lack of lighting, and limited space lead people to fear for their personal safety when afoot.

Hence, better pedestrian infrastructure in the form of wider footpaths and bus stop build-outs, for example, is necessary – measures that require space. However, finding room in dense cities can be a particularly difficult challenge when it looks like you’re taking space away from cars. The sizable car lobby is not known to step aside for pedestrians.

Challenge 4: Walking Is Not Really an Alternative For Most Car Trips

Historically, cities were compact and walkable. There was simply no alternative to going by foot. The invention of cars, however, has radically changed our perception of how to build and expand cities. Right now, we live in a world full of metropolitan areas. Cities just get bigger and bigger, and arguably harder to conquer by foot.

The size and spread of cities have led many to believe that cars are necessary and that walking is comparatively not a viable transport alternative. This is another advantage cycling advocates have over walking activists – bikes and electric bicycles can replace car trips in cities. Meanwhile, many believe distances in the city are too far for walking. The challenge for walking activists is to prove this wrong and show how pedestrian safety and connectivity to public transport needs to be a city’s priority.

Challenge 5: Everyone Walks, But Not Everyone Moves Freely

Even though we are all pedestrians, walking in the street is in no way the same experience for all. As Mike McGinn, Executive Director of America Walks, says, “if you’re white and wealthy, you can move freely […], and if you’re black or brown, even if you’re wealthy, your mobility is going to be interrupted.”

Reports on racial profiling and police brutality against people of colour in public spaces keep on coming – for example, people who are out for a run or are just walking back to their own home. Police are restricting Black people’s freedom and mobility on the streets. If you are not safe on the streets, especially from those who are supposed to protect you, then why risk walking around the neighbourhood in the first place?

Walking is not a one-dimensional issue. When trying to make cities pedestrian-friendly and walkable, racial and class equity components need to be part of the conversation. Check out this article on pedestrian safety in communities of colour to learn more.

Getting people to work is a hard challenge in cities -
Image credit: Unsplash / Arturo Castaneyra

The Way Forward…

In an ideal world, we could just go back to the times when cities were built solely for pedestrians. Realistically, though, we should face these challenges head-on and start working harder for pedestrian-friendly cities. Head to the article How to Get Started or Useful Guides and Tools where we help you with the next steps to take. 

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