Stepping ahead from COVID-19: The footpath to recovery and transformation!

Bronwen Thornton
SLOCAT Board Chair and Walk21 CEO

Imagine you’ve reached the peak of a mountain (or a local hill). We are enjoying the view, the blue skies, the fresh air, the quiet, the sense of what’s been achieved and a renewed sense of what’s possible. Lovely isn’t it! We now need to choose the right path and navigate the descent with care and attention. We know it is often harder to come down than it is to climb up.

Now imagine this mountain is COVID-19 and its impact on mobility. We could tumble down and land back where we started (congestion, pollution, danger, impending climate crisis), or we can create a new path that takes us to a ‘new normal’ – local walkability, reallocated road space for cycling, cleaner air, safer, happier, more equitable, sustainable streets for everyone.

Walking is critical for our personal physical and mental health and as we have just rediscovered, for resilient communities in the face of a crisis. Proximity to services has allowed some communities to better manage the restrictions than those with nothing available locally. It has also heightened the fault lines in our planning norms that prioritise vehicles over people and embeds inequalities in our streets and urban fabrics.

We cannot squander this opportunity for a new path. We must choose the right path to keep people safe and healthy and mobile. It is the key everyone is looking for to un-lock the ‘lockdown’ and it starts with the first step out your own front door.

Localise services to better #WalkFromHome
We have been rediscovering our local communities and seeing them in a fresh light – ‘working from home’ opportunities create ‘walking from home’ opportunities. The first tentative step is always going to be a local one. The essential trips for food and healthcare need both space to walk and capacity to accommodate demand. This means ensuring enough width for 500m catchments around corner stores, hospitals, schools and clinics as a priority. Reallocating road space, reducing on-street parking and any sense of vehicular entitlement are likely to be necessary too.

Using mobility grids, like the Superblocks in Barcelona, will enable communities to define their residential areas as walkable neighbourhoods with minimal new infrastructure. Walkers need to be assumed, expected and prioritised within these renewed neighbourhoods and why not make street crossings ‘ever-green’ for people of any age or ability to cross without concern? Turning vehicle ‘rat-runs’ into accessible local streets is very quick and affordable with substantial benefits for local residents.

People are likely to continue to work from home and these local spaces and trips will continue to be critical opportunities for exercise, well being and social life, including space for children to play. Longer term, many workers and students may still choose to replace long commutes with at least some days working from home and continue to need this space.

Prioritise walkability at the urban scale
As demand for inter-neighbourhood travel increases, journeys to schools, work, places of worship, parks and recreation need to be walkable. Connect quality walking neighbourhoods and key destinations via networks of key walkable routes which can be mapped, sign-posted and promoted within days. Many cities and towns have plans and projects on the drawing board – now is the time to roll them out!

Ensuring that the walking connections to green spaces and to public transport corridors are made more attractive, safe and direct will help people to retain their new habits for longer. Shade, lighting, managed gradients and seating enable people of all ages, especially the elderly and those walking with very young children, to walk and enjoy their local spaces. All these measures are the building blocks to give everyone the confidence to walk safely.

A quick note on shared paths. Shared paths for walking and cycling are a half measure and create speed differentials in the same space that make it uncomfortable and unattractive for people walking. Reallocate road space for cycling, scooters and any other light wheeled mobility (LIT Lanes) and protect sidewalks for people on foot, especially those with mobility aids.

Establish partnerships for creating walkable communities
Quick urban change is already possible and desirable; now it is necessary. Many cities have quickly seen that they needed to improve their walking environments and have used a number of rapid tactics to do this. New examples are hatching daily. Momentum is growing to re-shape our streets and travel habits. The phrases ‘tactical urbanism’ or ‘guerrilla urbanism’ have become popular. People can experience the difference they make and support the trials to morph into permanent change. Local authorities can dismantle obstacles to implementation, as most famously shown in New York’s Times Square, but there are so many other smaller, local examples as well.

Locking in these changes needs a paradigm shift at all levels of government. National governments must take this opportunity to accelerate the investment and streamline legal frameworks needed for walkability, to keep citizens on their feet and get our communities moving again.

Local governments need to coordinate the delivery by: inviting residents to co-create walkable neighbourhoods, play streets and school streets; partnering with businesses whose survival is dependent on footfall; and giving priority to walkable access to local services. Public transport operators can support key walking routes along their transit corridors, to ease congestion on their services; and the police are needed in the response team, to enforce traffic speed and restrictions.

Our shoes are the essential low carbon ‘vehicles’ that need priority over other modes, to get the world back on its feet and provide the foundation for the recovery of all other sustainable mobility and more liveable urban streets and public spaces for everyone.

Let’s build a more walkable sustainable urban future together – let’s choose the right path to come down this mountain, to unlock a safer, healthier, walkable world and enjoy the view from here.

10 things to do for walking now and tomorrow to unlock a safe and healthy walkable world

10 things to do for walking now and tomorrow to unlock a safe and healthy walkable world

  1. Invite local communities to define where they walk the most, so that walkers can be assumed, expected and given priority here quickly.
  2. Create spaces to walk, with enough capacity for demand, that links homes to the essential trips for food and healthcare first.
  3. Make street crossings ‘priority pedestrian green’ outside corner stores, hospitals and clinics as a priority, for people of any age or ability to cross without concern.
  4. Partner with businesses (especially local shops) whose survival is dependent on footfall to
    enable their 500m catchments to give priority to the walkable access of localised services.
  5. Ask the police to enforce slower speeds and any vehicle restrictions including keeping
    footpaths/pavements clear as part of a reallocation of road space, reduction of on-street parking and any sense of vehicular entitlement where people need to walk most.
  6. Ask public transport operators to help with the mapping, signpost and promotion of a network of key walking corridors, based on their routes, to link neighbourhoods to schools, work, places of worship, parks and recreation facilities as they are opened.
  7. Be kind and generous where possible. Give people connections to green space, manage gradients, provide shelter and shade from the climate and include lighting and seating where possible for every destination catchment.
  8. Be inspired by what others are doing. We are all in this together and new creative solutions elsewhere may inspire interventions in your city. Remember that a ‘new normal’ is both expected and achievable quickly.
  9. Ask for funding and flexibility from the national government to accelerate the investment and legal frameworks needed to keep citizens on their feet and get our communities moving again.
  10. Keep a record of your success and obstacles overcome; get ready to showcase your
    transformation – we will be celebrating successes and learning lessons later this year.

Stay in touch!

Picture of Bronwen Thornton

Bronwen Thornton

Bronwen is an international expert, facilitator and trainer on walking and walkable communities, giving walking a voice on the international stage and within local communities, cities and professional arenas. She has more than 20 years experience in strategic transport planning, community and political engagement, on-street analysis and creative development, and policy and project delivery with a focus on equitable and sustainable transport. She particularly likes to work in creative partnerships to inspire politicians and practitioners about the value of walking.