We’ve all heard that walking is good, both for us and for the planet. But have you heard of Walkable Cities?
This month’s workshop theme is on cities that are developed with the pedestrian at the centre. By making it easy and appealing to walk, walkable cities help more people choose their legs over their cars. This reduces the number of motorised vehicles, and results in less air pollution, less energy expended, and more money available to be invested elsewhere.
So what qualifies as a walkable city?
At the most basic level, streets have to be ‘passable’ and physically capable of being walked on. To achieve high ‘walkability’, streets also have to be accessible, safe, convenient to use, comfortable to walk on, and create an enjoyable walking experience.
In other words, people should want to repeatedly choose walking over driving.
What are the benefits of walkable cities?
As touched on above, there are lots of benefits to encouraging more city-dwellers to walk more often, so let’s run through these in more detail:
HEALTH – As we all know, walking is exercise, and therefore better for your body than driving. More walking also means healthier minds, fewer road accidents, and reduced harm from air pollution. Given that pollution currently causes 1 in every 8 deaths worldwide, this is one benefit that can’t be ignored .
ENVIRONMENTAL – More walking means less emissions. Transportation is responsible for nearly 25% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions and 15% of annual emissions in general. A whopping 72% of these transport-related emissions are from road vehicles . By making cities more walkable, it will also encourage more people to use public transport, and vice versa, as walking is the start and end of every public transport journey.
SOCIAL – Walkable cities promote equity. Good walkability allows everybody to save money on travel, regardless of income level. In cities that are designed to be walked in, everyone can have easy access to basic services, such as hospitals. Walkable cities are also better for child development as children have more space to play. They can even combat loneliness by providing more opportunities for people to make social connections, and the greater sense of community can lead to lower crime rates. Communities are composed of people. It’s therefore unsurprising that placing people at the heart of planning has positive impacts on wider society.
ECONOMIC – It’s actually more expensive to design a city for driving than a city for walking. By facilitating more efficient urban spending, walkable cities can enable money to be invested elsewhere, such as in public health, education, and local businesses. Further benefits include local businesses benefitting from more street-level activity, reduction of healthcare costs, and the fact that bicycle/pedestrian projects create more jobs than road projects. In fact, Sunday ciclovías (car-free Sundays) in Bogotá have been found to save $3.20-$4.30 in direct medical costs per dollar invested . They also generate 7.4 times more private sector employment than car-related businesses along the same streets! 
What are the limitations of walkable cities?
This all sounds pretty great, right? Well it is! But there are a few limitations that we should bear in mind:
GENTRIFICATION – Improved walkability will likely make neighbourhoods more desirable to live in, but this could mean higher rents and house prices, and the exclusion of low-income families from previously affordable neighborhoods.
HOLISTIC APPROACH – Maintaining high walkability requires a holistic approach and therefore it may be difficult to create impact on a large-scale. For example, it’s easy to clean up pavements but much more difficult to tackle social issues – such as discrimination – that may make walking a dangerous option for marginalised peoples. Behavioural change is also required, as better pedestrian facilities doesn’t automatically result in less pollution if people are still driving.
DEPENDENT ON PUBLIC TRANSPORT – Walkable cities depend on an effective public transit system (and vice versa). In places where there is no reliable public transit to bridge the gap between walking and driving, people might be deterred from attending medical appointments or have limited options when it comes to finding work.
LIMITED SCOPE – Many cities in higher-income countries are already good for walking – London is regularly at the top of ‘most walkable city’ lists. It might therefore be more effective to consider how to support other cities in improving their walkability, rather than improving walkability locally. Being sensitive to contexts and cultures is paramount.
DIFFICULT TO REPLICATE – There is no ‘one-size fits all’ approach, so strategies and costs for improving walkability are dependent on city-specific contexts. Best practice guidelines can only go so far.
What are the practical challenges and how can we solve them?
With all of this in mind, let’s explore a few of the challenges encountered when increasing the walkability of a city. In preparation for the workshop this month, our brilliant research team have also suggested lots of potential solutions to these challenges, so we’ll highlight a few of these to get your brain ticking:
For the past few decades, city planning has focused on designing cities that are suitable for cars, rather than pedestrian-centric, walkable cities.
One fairly obvious solution to this is to create more green spaces in order to provide dedicated walking space and make journeys more enjoyable. Who doesn’t prefer strolling along a leafy road, after all? Large parks are difficult to build, but green spaces can be introduced by turning empty parking areas into ‘parklets’, or vacant building lots into ‘pocket parks’.
‘Tactical urbanism’ can also be employed. This is when temporary changes are made to the built environment. These changes are usually cheap, easy to implement, and a way to test out new ideas before making them permanent. Because of this, tactical urbanism projects are a great method for building political support for more extensive interventions.
A great example of tactical urbanism is the LeGare intersection in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia – it was transformed with colourful street art and clearer road signs for 6 months, back in 2016. This trial reduced vehicle turning speeds from 30kph to 16.8kph and crossing distances from 50m to 6.5m, improving safety for pedestrians. The transformation was made permanent and led to the Safe Intersections Program – an initiative for Addis Ababa to transform 10 intersections every year from 2018-2021! 
Even if designed well, streets are not walkable if they aren’t properly maintained. Because of this, some of the biggest challenges that resilient walkable cities face are lack of regulations, existing rules being outdated, and difficulties around enforcement.
An obvious solution is to update laws and regulations to ensure that pavements are regularly cleaned, street capacity is well-maintained, and cars don’t infringe on pedestrian-priority areas. Updating laws to prioritise the pedestrian is also key – e.g. removing laws that criminalise walking/cycling such as jaywalking and helmet laws.
Streets also need to be safe in all aspects for pedestrians to walk on. Long-term plans should be put in place to increase safety for pedestrians – both from road accidents and other risks such as crime and harassment. One way that citizens are already making strides in this area is through the use of apps to map out safe routes in cities by asking the public to report information and incidents (e.g. S-City in Vietnam, Safecities in India, and HarassMap in Egypt). This crowdsourced information can also be used as a way to advocate local authorities for better regulations. Doubly useful!
As is always the case for innovative ideas, funding is limited. Although ‘Sustainable transport’ funds exist, these are typically limited to public transit and walking is often overlooked.
However, there are several potential solutions, such as encouraging governments to allocate at least a third of total transport spending on improving infrastructure for non-motorised transport projects, and to limit spending on infrastructure for motor vehicles .
Corporate sponsorship and other innovative approaches to funding could also be used. Outdoor advertising rights (e.g. billboards) could be given to companies in exchange for said company funding tree planting, lighting, and other improvements in the area.
Walking is often overlooked and undervalued by governments and politicians who tend to prioritise drivers and large road infrastructure projects. This is a challenge in itself, but it also means that data regarding pedestrian preferences is rarely collected. Since pedestrian preferences and benefits are not appropriately measured, there is then no evidence to advocate for street improvements.
There is plenty of room for innovation in data collection. An example close to home is on Queen Street, London, where machine learning software and cameras were used to track and analyse the interactions between pedestrians and cyclists. Different interventions for increasing safety were then trialled based on the data gathered .
More broadly, governments need to develop national, regional, and/or city-wide policies with clear targets to promote the importance of walking, ensure accountability, and provide a clear overall strategy to unify stakeholders and maintain consistent quality across interventions.
A great example of this is the introduction of the Seoul Transport Vision 2030 in 2013, which shifted the previous emphasis on car-oriented mobility towards a focus on accessibility and shared mobility. Since 2013, Seoul has implemented over 3,000 pedestrian crossings, decommissioned numerous footbridges, and reduced the rate of crashes .
Promoting walkability involves encouraging people to change their behaviours and attitudes towards walking. People need to make a habit of walking, and actually want to walk. Changing someone’s behaviour can be pretty challenging, especially when preferences for driving are often deep-rooted.
One potential solution is to make sure the public is well and truly involved – through public consultation to ensure that needs are being addressed and that interventions will actually encourage walking, and also through local community organisations increasing community spirit so that people feel invested in the upkeep and maintenance of public spaces.
Another way of changing people’s behaviour is to just go ahead and design cities for pedestrians rather than cars – if cities are designed around the pedestrian, people will naturally prefer walking rather than driving, if only for ease and comfort.
Barcelona have done this and turned some neighbourhoods into ‘superblocks’ – blocks of residential buildings where no through traffic is allowed. Cars are only allowed to drive slowly on the surrounding roads, which makes driving much more of a hassle. Superblocks were initially met with protests from drivers, but these soon subsided as residents became used to the new measures. In the Gracia superblock, walking increased by 10%, cycling by 30%, and driving fell by 26% in 2007-2017 .
So what next?
Hopefully you now have an understanding of what Walkable Cities are and why they should be the future. However, as you’ve seen, there are also lots of hurdles in the way of creating truly walkable cities.
This is where we need you!
Many of the successful examples mentioned above began as community organised initiatives, so we would love for you to join our two upcoming workshops and help us take forward a real project that has the potential to have an impact on the climate crisis.
- Pedestrians First (ITDP)
- Health co-benefits of climate change mitigation – Transport sector (WHO)
- Everything You Need to Know About the Fastest-Growing Source of Global Emissions: Transport (WRI)
- Car-free Sundays are the norm in Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá (Inhabitat)
- Reclaiming public space: The economic, environmental, and social impacts of Bogotá’s transformation (Wright & Montezuma)
- What would a truly walkable city look like? (The Guardian)
- How to develop a non‑motorised transport strategy or policy (ITDP)
- Pedestrian Mobility for Urban Growth : Walking and its Links to Transportation (WBG)
- Inside a Pedestrian-First ‘Superblock’ (Bloomberg)