Understanding Walking
1 June 2016

Understanding Walking

How much walking have you done today? A mile? Five miles? A bit more or less? If you are a typical adult who doesn’t count every step or heartbeat with a hi-tech wearable fitness monitor, it’s a safe bet that your answer will be some version of ‘I haven’t a clue’.

After all, for most of us walking is something we do in between other activities, almost unconsciously, barely giving it a thought. We walk to the car, bus Tube or train, but the real business of getting from place to place, the stuff we concentrate on, plan, and worry about –that is, the stuff that dominates our professional models – is what happens on road or rail.

And yet walking is becoming an increasingly important part of urban life and a growing interest for planners, developers and policy makers. All the evidence shows that we are walking more and further. Governments and health bodies across the world are determined to see the trend continue. In the UK, the NHS has recognised the public health potential in walking and adopted the 10,000 step challenge to encourage all adults to make walking a conscious part of their daily routine. Today, the average adult makes between 3,000 and 4,000 steps daily, which is roughly two miles. If the NHS 10,000 step target were reached it would mean that for just one medium-sized city, Manchester for example, there would be an increase of more than 1.2 million miles walked every year.

This is surely something that transport modellers cannot ignore. Over the next ten years we can expect ever more demands from clients for better data on how walkers use urban spaces and what can be done to encourage more feet on the ground, but the models we currently have are not up to the job. They don’t ignore pedestrians altogether, of course, but –especially in the larger strategic models – the representation of walking compared to other modes is crude and far too generic, based on huge oversimplifications of behaviour. In fact, walking as a transport mode in its own right, is barely there at all, it is always a poor cousin to the train, car, bus or tram journey that precedes or follows. And walking between modes? Well that is - for all intents and purposes - invisible to us.

The fact is that pedestrian behaviour and the way it is affected by urban design - not to mention other imponderables like the weather - is extremely complex. If our models are going to effectively serve the cities of the near future they are going to have to reflect that complexity. Increasingly we are going to be asked by planners how they can effect change to create healthier, happier places. To answer these questions, we will need to have models built on a deeper understanding not just of what makes a habitual walker walk but what can trigger change in the habits of the non-walker. We will need to discover a whole new layer of transport networks within our towns, the places that other transport modes cannot go - the paths, cut-throughs and canal-sides - and understand what makes them attractive or threatening.

Technology is not the obstacle. In fact, the explosion of processing power over the last decade has led to enormous improvements in our ability to model pedestrian patterns at a local level. Microsimulations such as the LEGION model for Euston station offer a real-time representation of pedestrian behaviour in extraordinary detail. Not just generic parcelling of pedestrians here, but a natural variety of behaviours in a complex environment. The level of detail in these models can only grow and the outputs can only become more accurate. But we simply do not know enough about pedestrian behaviour at the larger scale to make it do the work it needs to do for the bigger picture strategic planning. We need to do that research now. We need to know more, we need to learn quickly and we need to have the courage to take a cold look at our current models and, where necessary, to take them back to the drawing board.

What a city means to the people who live in and use it can change very suddenly. After the shock of the 7/7 atrocities in London, with public transport networks temporarily paralysed, Londoners discovered that there were alternative ways to get around that they had not considered or had forgotten about. Journeys habitually taken by Tube turned out to be shorter than expected, amenable to cycling or walking and the consequent boom in cycling has never abated. Now new technologies threaten – or promise – a similar disruption. Apps that direct users along the shortest pedestrian routes are being complemented by those that send them off the narrow path on journeys of rediscovery. Citizens are less content to passively adapt to their spaces and increasingly demand spaces that are adaptable by them. What people value in a city or town is changing, perhaps faster than any at time before. Our models - and our means of appraising the value and return on transport schemes - will have to adapt with them if they are to serve the next decade as well as they served the last.

Of course, more walking in towns and cities can bring its own problems. Getting kids out of cars during the school run as the Scottish government – with SYSTRA’s help – is aiming to do may be an unequivocal good in terms of health outcomes and relieving traffic congestion, but we cannot assume that the pedestrian infrastructure has infinite capacity everywhere. Pedestrian congestion brings its own challenges as any stadium, station or shopping mall designer can tell you. Persuading passengers to exchange short bus journeys for a walk relieves demand on public transport and saves money, but how can we be sure the system has the capacity to deal with the sudden demand that, say, a sudden rainstorm brings?

But transport modellers have always dealt with these sorts of difficulties and we should have every confidence that we will be up to whatever the future throws at us. So long as we are clear eyed about what those challenges are. The future city is not just going to be a bigger, shinier version of what we have always known. The age of the car is reaching its high tide and the time of the pedestrian and the cyclist is coming. Great changes are underway in our cities and we, as modellers, can be at the forefront of understanding that change. It won’t be a walkover, or a walk in the park, or even a cakewalk. But if we take the first confident step now, it could be the start of a great journey.

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