The National Walking Summit 2020

Wednesday, 1st April 2020

Guest blog by Edward Wellard, Associate, WSP.

I attended Living Streets’ National Walking Summit the other day. Seems like a lifetime ago.

I’d got 90% through writing an article about what I’d taken from it but the world has started changing pretty dramatically and many of my observations seem a bit banal or irrelevant now, given what we’re up against with the Covid-19 pandemic and such an uncertain future.

The walk to school campaign planned for May has got a bit easier but also pointless now it’s just the kids walking from their bedrooms to the front room….

I still think it’s worth finding time to listen to their speeches from the links here. I’d recommend reading what the organisers had to say about the key points here too.

The talks from Andy Burnham and Chris Boardman are rabble rousing and interesting, particularly from a local Mancunian perspective.

The talk from Prof Shane O’Mara about science/biology/evolution of walking and why it is so good for us was fascinating. (If you’re finding it a bit dry at the start, or his lilting Galway accent soporific, click to 9mins52s).

He makes it clear that we are fundamentally built for walking. It resonated with me that we need walking to be part of our lives for the good of our body, mind and soul. That feels really relevant now that we’re faced with a period of living more isolated lives to help stop the spread of the virus. It will inevitably affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Walking was described as an ‘emergency mental health intervention’. It can certainly help ease two of the big side effects of the situation the lock down presents us with – isolation and inactivity.

I think our household will be fairly typical in that we won’t be exercising nearly as much as we used to. I don’t think Joe Wicks’ online PE lesson will be enough to fill the gap left from no more cycling to work, or walking to school or going to footy, cricket, dancing, yoga or swimming for what could be quite a while. I’m not presenting myself as an expert but I’m pretty sure that walking can still be a fantastic and safe way to stay active even in the unique times we’re living through, if done sensibly with social distancing in mind (unlike a depressingly large amount of people this past weekend). Maybe go for a walk somewhere quiet nearby, or do your trip for essential meds or food on foot, rather jump in a car.

One of the biggest things I was struck by at the summit was that that they were preaching to the converted. It was a room full of people that were proper hiker type “walkers” or people keen to see the modal shift from car to walking (and cycling and public transport). The important messages about the value and benefits of walking need to find their way into the main stream to have any significant positive impact. How will that happen?

Maybe it’s a bit strong to think that there will be a new utopian social order post Covid-19 but, I think that we will all look at how we live our lives to a greater or lesser degree and will likely make subtle or even significant changes to our lives once we get past this.

Will we change our approach to work? Will we work from home more, and live more flexibly and eschew the time wasted commuting to work, or rush back to our offices craving the routine? Will we feel uncomfortable on public transport after weeks or months of social distancing and look for alternatives like walking and cycling, or depressingly embrace more car journeys?

Will we value living locally more when our favourite local shops, pubs and restaurants open up again (or if there’s great big scars on our high streets where they once were)? Will we have got used to using small local shops, and doing smaller shops with the sorry spectre of panic buying and hoarding and its implications in our minds? Will those 20-minute neighbourhood ideals be easier to sell or implement if there’s a ground swell of public and politically support for getting our communities up and running again? Will people demand roads that prioritise people over cars and pavements that are over 2m wide? It’s certainly been liberating walking and riding bikes in the streets with my kids because there’s no traffic.

Ultimately, when the dust settles on Covid-19 and we’re rebuilding our lives there is the opportunity to shift walking (and cycling) higher up the agenda. After all, we all need to build walking (and cycling and public transport) into our daily lives, not just the enthusiasts’, and break the bad habits of making short journeys in our cars.

We can easily make little changes make like using the lifts instead of stairs, walking to the shops and kids to school, not parking half on the pavement and blocking the footpath. More significant changes (for many) of using public transport as a default and realising the benefits of those extra walking trips to/from your stop will need more investment and political support because it’s a far complex issue.

It’s clear that more and more money is being, and will be, invested in infrastructure to support walking and cycling. You hear about pockets of excellence, of course, but perhaps it is not fully coordinated and embraced just yet as it spans numerous disciplines: highways, future mobility, future ready, transport planning, advisory. Would having a dedicated walking unit or discipline give a platform for positive change, or marginalise and side line it? Who should lead the charge in changing the way we design our cities to make walking easier and more attractive for everyone?

Whatever happens, there is certainly something for all our teams or businesses to consider in the work we do, or the way we operate.