More walking is better for London. But our pavements aren’t equally accessible to all. Oriane Nermond on why the city needs to embrace inclusive design.
Londoners walk a lot. But London’s walkability is not a given for everyone.
Issues such as uneven pavements and street clutter mean people with disabilities or mobility challenges, including old age, are often left out.
Getting around London on foot is also harder for people with young children, disproportionately affecting women.
The benefits of walking should be available to everyone. And more people walking is good for London in a number of ways, including boosting local business and improving health.
To make it happen, the city needs to embrace inclusive design. This means putting people who might find it hard to get around, not able-bodied working-age people, at the centre of how we create our streets.
Doing that helps people with disabilities or mobility challenges. And it also helps everyone else – who also benefit from more walkable streets.
The benefits of walking for London and Londoners
London is one of the most walkable cities in the world according to the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP).
During the pandemic Londoners walked more. And this trend continued after the restrictions were lifted. Londoners made a larger proportion of their trips on foot in 2022 than in 2018/2019, according to Transport for London’s (TfL) Travel in London report.
This is a positive trend. There are many ways that more people walking helps to make London better:
- Boosting high streets and local businesses. Walkers are more likely to stop in a local shop than drivers. A TfL study found that people spend on average 40% more when they walk to their destination than when they drive.
- Improving people’s physical and mental health. It’s estimated that the NHS could save £1.7 billion if every Londoner walked for 20 minutes each day.
- Reducing air pollution and traffic by reducing driving. And reducing over-crowding on public transport by encouraging people to switch.
- Saving people money. Walking is the least expensive mode of transport. Improving London’s walkability is one of the most effective transport strategies to support people with the cost of living crisis.
There are other less obvious benefits of walking.
It makes streets safer through social control. If more people walk, the number of “eyes on the street” – to use Jane Jacobs’ expression – increases as well. This reduces the risk of crime and just as importantly makes people feel safer.
Walking also shapes people’s experience of the city. The idea of walking around a city being a creative, intellectual activity was captured by the idea of a ‘flaneur’ developed in 19th century Paris – a gentleman wandering the city on foot.
21st century feminist thinkers later expanded this to include the female ‘flaneuse’. In London, Virginia Woolf’s writing embodied the flaneuse attitude in the early 20th century. But at any point in history, we know that walking is good for the soul.
Using inclusive design to improve London’s walkability for everyone
TfL has done a lot to increase the city’s walkability. But people’s experience of the street varies considerably.
People’s experiences of walking and wheeling vary with gender, age, race, and sexual orientation. And not every street offers the same level of security, navigability, or accessibility.
Streets are easier to navigate for working age people who don’t have disabilities. More than 1 in 3 Londoners with a disability are unhappy with the quality of the pavements in their local areas.
Streets are also more difficult to navigate for women than for men, since women are more likely to travel with children. Leslie Kern writes: “as I tried to navigate an unfamiliar set of everyday routines as a new mom, the city was a physical force I had to constantly struggle against.”
Research shows that people with mobility issues are less likely to walk due to issues such as uneven pavement, street clutter or access to public toilets.
To get more people walking and wheeling more often, we need to put people at the centre of our design. We need to embrace inclusive design.
Inclusive design can benefit everyone: dropped kerbs are the perfect example. They are essential for wheelchair or mobility scooter users, but they also improve most people’s experience of the streets including parents with buggies, tourists with suitcases, or older people.
Designing the streets for young able-bodied people means designing for the minority, whilst embracing inclusivity principles works for the majority.
More and more people are advocating for more inclusive design and arguing against the idea that a young able-bodied person should be the reference when thinking about transport strategy.
The ITDP measures city walkability using “babies, toddler and caregivers” – since getting it right for them tends to mean getting it right for everyone.
Reducing Street Clutter
Part of improving street accessibility for these groups is reducing street clutter – people often say this is a problem for getting around.
We’re working on a project to reduce street clutter in central London. Our research project will explore practical policy solutions to maintaining accessible, safe, and desirable streets.