People on the street are a measure of successful cities. Walkers are the indicator species for the health and liveability of urban areas. If streets are hostile to walking, we are in trouble.
We are now faced with the challenge of rebuilding our communities as walkable places after decades of designing our cities around cars, not people.
It is widely recognised that walkability is an economic and public health issue. Yet it is as if by simply mentioning walking or walkability in various strategies that the work has been done.
We need to move past the rhetoric. The reality is that we are still building car dependent suburbs and engineering walking out of our lives. Government policies still require huge amounts of car parking and massively wide arterial roads. If a new train station is built, we maroon it in a sea of car parking rather than creating a community around it.
We undertake quite sophisticated transport planning for vehicular transport, including cycling, yet the most fundamental mode is largely ignored. This is despite the fact that 14 per cent of transport trips are undertaken entirely on foot and the vast majority of public transport is accessed by walking.
The Victorian Government has developed guidelines for Principal Pedestrian Networks (PPN). The PPN guide enables effective, strategic network planning for pedestrians in the broader context of transport and land use planning. A good PPN should facilitate walking trips into and around key destinations such as activity centres, schools and transport nodes. Despite providing a level of planning sophistication, there is little investment to implement it. Again, we seem to assume walkability will just happen.
When designing for walking, a one size fits all approach is usually taken. And that one size is the average, adult (male) body. Not a young child, mother with a pram, senior, person with a vision impairment or mobility issues – those often dependent on walking or others to get around and live their daily lives. It is time to ask for whom we should be designing.
How we design for and treat seniors is extremely telling. Rather than creating a road environment that takes care of them, we create unsafe and unappealing walking conditions, then tell them to take care.
So it is not surprising that senior pedestrians are over-represented in crash statistics. In Victoria those over 70 years of age are 10 percent of the population but account for 33 percent of pedestrian fatalities. They are usually not at fault in crashes.
We know that older pedestrians need quality surfaces free from trip hazards and a comprehensive, connected footpath network separated from traffic. They also need more time to cross at lights, less complex street environments, a reduction in crossing distances, increased visibility (e.g. pedestrian refuges) and safer informal crossing opportunities.
Many seniors also do not like sharing with cyclists – research indicates 39 percent find cyclists on shared paths a moderate to major barrier to walking. And the cyclists prefer separate bike paths. However, we continue to build shared paths with not much thought.
This is not simply about the need to get individuals more physically active, it is an economic imperative. The nation needs seniors to be active, walking and still working.
For seniors, and the whole population, we need to address vehicle speed.
Vehicle speeds in Australian urban areas are significantly higher than many countries with higher levels of walking for transport.
Generally, all we have are occasional 40km/h shopping strips, where the limit is not about increasing active travel to shops, but making the strip a bit more appealing and safer. Similarly, school zones are not about increasing journeys between home and school on foot, they simply make the (car) drop off zone safer.
We need to learn from the many European countries where the traffic speed in residential and high pedestrian areas is 30km/h, achieved largely through good urban design.
It is not only infrastructure and speed, we need to design age friendly cities with intergenerational, medium density housing within walking distance of public transport and activity centres with shops and services relevant to everyday life.
In Australia, walking is mostly lumped together with cycling under active transport thinking that serves neither mode well. Walking needs to be on its own two feet, or at least thought of with public transport. But, we need to move past public transport debates that centre on services and timetabling to think how people can get to buses, trams and trains.
Our walking policy and infrastructure investment looks positively timid compared to world’s best practice. In Melbourne we celebrate making a few back laneways, with little vehicle traffic, into shared zones. Many European cities, big and small, construct kilometre stretches of pedestrian zones such as the busy Mariahilfer Strasse in Vienna. Or they create shared spaces in quite heavily trafficked areas such as Exhibition Rd in London, or Opernplatz in Duisburg, Germany.
In a lesson for Melbourne, many European shared spaces include busy tram networks. In the 20km/h ‘Encounter Zone’ in Landstraße in Linz, the third largest city in Austria, walkers, cyclists, motor vehicles and trams all share the same road space. Why aren’t we reducing on street car parking and doing this on streets like High Street, Northcote and Brunswick Street, Fitzroy? Or the entire length of Elizabeth St in the Melbourne CBD, which currently fails nearly every mode of transport? Slowing the street down to 20km/h with pedestrian priority (apart from with trams) would allow the fencing barriers along the tram tracks to be removed and increase permeability, with the road surface at one level across the entire street. This would also enable cyclists to have more space and not be dangerously hemmed in with motorised vehicles as is currently the case.
If we want to create healthy cities, there is a very strong argument that should start with our feet. Now is the time for real innovation and visionary leadership.
Dr Ben Rossiter is Secretary and Executive Officer for Victoria Walks. This article originally appeared in the Creating Healthy Cities Summit newspaper.