Walking is essential as a mode of transport for sustainable urban areas. Aside from being a crucial element for increasing the vitality and liveability of cities, walking is critical for reducing the need for motorised modes of transport (e.g. passenger cars or motorcycles):
- For short distances (e.g. for shopping, essential services), walking can fully replace other modes of transport, some of the carbon-intensive, e.g. cars or motorcycles. An immediate impact is difficult to obtain, but long-term results are indisputable. Such an approach is prevalent in urban planning among Scandinavian cities (i.e. Gothenburg and Malmö) and develops a strong foundation for the sustainable urban mobility planning of those cities. Also, Stockholm pioneered the concept of “walkable cities”.
- Since walking is often part of trips that often include public transport, the definition of a “walking trip” immediately impacts the evaluation of other modes of transportation. If it is challenging, unpleasant, or even dangerous to reach the nearest bus or tram station on foot, a person may opt to travel the entire distance by car. Alternatively, an attractive walking route can increase multimodality. As a result, walkability is a central concept in TOD (Transit-Oriented Development) policies. Walking accessibility is crucial for high-performance public transport in urban areas of high density.
Data on walking
Precise measurement of walkability brings complex challenges, and the research method strongly influences the results. As a result, no reliable data on walking distances exist. The value of 220 km applied has been based on data from the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. However, this should not be an obstacle to promoting walking as an essential aspect of mobility research. Furthermore, research aimed at a qualitative walkability assessment can be a valuable source in developing sustainable mobility policies at a local level.
Scale of intervention
Measures focused on walking offer many possibilities, ranging from small organisational interventions to an investment-needed, large-scale transformation of urban space. One of the most significant advantages is that walking-oriented measures can be implemented concisely, resulting in an immediate impact for the local audience. In smaller communities, the result could affect a wider group of citizens, convincing them to take more balanced and sustainable measures.
Quality pedestrian space
Due to direct exposure to the surrounding environment, pedestrians are more sensitive to the quality of space, environmental pollution and traffic safety than any other mode of traffic. Increasing the walkability of the cities is essential in improving the traffic for this mode of transport. There are several factors influencing walkability.
The most frequently identified are the built environment with its multifunctionality of space, street layout, safety and green infrastructure. The lack of conflict with other modes of transport – especially cycling and more recently electric scooters – is also of great importance.
The Street Design Manual prepared for Vilnius identified 12 principles, which prioritise green spaces between busy streets and pedestrian spaces to increase safety and provide shade for pedestrians. For this purpose, parking spaces should be organised in groups of 2 – 3 places, parallel to the street, separated by greenery islands. It also aims to increase the safety of pedestrians by locating street crossings closer to each other, thus discouraging crossing the street in unprotected areas. Also, pedestrian spaces should be equipped with lightning, which does not necessarily apply to the road itself. Finally, the amount of space provided to motorised transport should reflect existing traffic. All the area preserved is to be allocated for pedestrians, trees and other elements to raise the quality of the street.
A survey conducted in Vilnius indicates that the quality of pedestrian space influences modal split. The results showed that the most significant share of trips made on foot occur in the city centre (almost 42 %), where the infrastructure is well developed and maintained. The short distances from living places also play a role: one-third of all Vilnius workplaces are located in this area, as well as recreational/leisure zones, commercial spots and social infrastructure. In the districts with good accessibility to the city centre, pedestrian trips also remain high at more than 35%, due to well-developed pedestrian infrastructure and walkable distances to crucial targets, mainly located in the city centre and nearby. The smallest share of trips (11% and 12%) made by foot occurs in districts with poorly developed pedestrian infrastructure and a lack of everyday targets located on the city’s outskirts and in specialised neighbourhoods. Despite good infrastructure, these technical districts lack diversity, which results in the need to travel to other communities for education, work and different social demands at distances often larger than suitable for walking.
The “Healthy Streets” in London is a concept that aims to encourage Londoners to walk at least 20 minutes per day. The Healthy Streets Approach provides the framework of policies and strategies that place walking equal to public transport and cycling. Therefore, the streets in London need to be re-examined to achieve pleasant, safe, and attractive streets for pedestrians. The Healthy Streets Approach aims to enact change at three primary levels of policymaking and implementation: street level, network level, and strategic level (policy and planning). The Healthy Streets Approach is supported by ten indicators that horizontally address most topics essential for high comfort and safety for pedestrians. A rough estimate shows the potential savings if all Londoners walk or cycle 20 minutes per day: National Health Service spending would decrease by ca. 1.7 GBP bn in next 25 years.
In 2019 Gdynia, Poland, launched “Klimatyczne Centrum” (Climatic Centre) intending to counter individual motorisation growth, preserve a unique part of the city, and make it more attractive for pedestrians. It includes different measures focused on traffic calming, greening and improving traffic safety and parking conditions in the central part of Gdynia city. Specific actions are changes in the traffic organisation to prioritise public transport and cyclists, deployment of the urban greenery along streets and improvement crossings with a particular focus on the safety of pedestrians. The measures are put together and campaigned under its logo “Climatic Centre”, bringing better perception and awareness among citizens.
Easier street crossing
One of the greatest concerns when it comes to promoting walkability and increasing safety is conflict between pedestrians and street-level traffic. The likelihood of the conflict is exacerbated by density, increasing population, and poor infrastructure, but steps can be taken to ensure pedestrian safety and decrease conflict between all modes of transportation on the road.
Unless the purpose of the walk is recreation, pedestrians have a strong tendency to choose the shortest route to their destination. This often comes at the price of safety as some may decide to cross the street on red light or pass the street between crossings. These practices are strengthened by the fact that, in many cities, pedestrian crossings prioritise the needs of the car drivers, not the pedestrians. Thus, any consideration of pedestrian design should focus on nudging pedestrians towards the safest, highest quality route given the road situation. With regards to street crossings, common solutions include:
- Creating crossings where pedestrians have exhibited the desire to cross – these may be at intersections, mid-block, or between significant attractions. Crossings should not be limited to only intersections, as pedestrians may be willing to cross in uncontrolled and unsafe spaces if they feel the controlled crosswalk is too far away. Future crossing behaviour ought also be considered when designing crossings
- Crossings should be surface-level with the pedestrian walkway and clearly marked with zebra or ladder markings, which have been shown to be the most effective markings for slowing vehicle traffic
- Signal timing should be reflective of the needs and abilities of the whole community and adapt to the crossing timings of the elderly, disabled, those with young children, and any individual who may require more time to cross than the average
- Crossing distances should be as small as possible, with refuge islands, and at least as wide as the walkways they connect
A special solution often promoted are pedestrian bridges. While an attractive solution in theory, they are often counterproductive and unsafe in practice. Proponents argue that pedestrian bridges remove the threat of conflict and move pedestrians out of harms way, however, in doing so they reinforce the primacy of vehicular traffic on the street, discouraging any form of transportation that isn’t a car or truck. In their efforts to remove pedestrians from the street, designers create crossing routes which may be up to 10 times longer than crossing the street on the same level as cars and include highly inaccessible ramps and stairs. These areas are often poorly lit, and the combination of speeding cars, dark corners, and steep, high stairs make pedestrian bridges feel quite unsafe for the most vulnerable members of society including women, children, and the elderly. The inhospitable design of most pedestrian bridges means that in many cases pedestrians will avoid them, deliberately crossing in unsafe places. Therefore, they should only be used if no other option exists.
Adequate pedestrian crossings increase walkability and promote pedestrian safety in a manner which motivates demand. In general, crosswalks and pedestrian interactions with vehicles must prioritise the pedestrian as a matter of safety and comfort.
Germany identified several geometric design practices intended to enhance pedestrian safety at signalised intersections. If a pedestrian crossing crosses more than two lanes, then a protective raised median is provided to function as a “refuge” area. The median must be at least 2 meters wide. This practice applies to both signalised and unsignalised intersections.
Berlin, Germany passed a law in 2016 which introduced yellow lights at pedestrian crossings as a result of a successful experiment in Düsseldorf that has been ongoing since the 1950s. Additionally, many European cities (see: the Netherlands example below) have introduced audible countdown timers which serve a similar purpose as yellow traffic lights, while also increasing accessibility of the crossings for the blind.
The United Kingdom has developed a number of innovative signalised pedestrian crossings that rely on the latest detector technology to improve safety and traffic operations. The PUFFIN crossings use pedestrian detectors to automatically vary the length of the pedestrian phase, giving pedestrians the time needed to cross. Some benefits of PUFFIN crossings include the following:
- Pedestrian signals are simplified (no flashing green man).
- Vehicle delays are reduced (if the pedestrian crosses during the red phase after having pushed the pedestrian button, the pedestrian call is canceled).
- Visibility problems are eliminated (nearside signals are used).
Netherlands has experimented with delineated bicycle and pedestrian paths at roundabouts instead of traditional four-leg intersections. These intersections keep a larger separation between pedestrian paths, bicycles, and cars and reduce conflicts between different forms of transportation.
Sweden prohibits right turns on red, particularly at intersections with significant pedestrian and bicycle traffic.
Additionally, all signalised intersections with an approach speed limit greater than 70 kilometres per hour should be provided with exclusive turn lanes and have protected-only phasing for left and right turns.
A critical aspect of improving walkability, especially for tourists and newcomers, is the accessibility of wayfinding and signage for pedestrians ensuring a smooth walk and providing critical information about the pedestrian’s environment. With proper wayfinding information, individuals can build a mental map of an area and are able to more easily read and interact with their environments. As a result, pedestrians may decide to walk, instead of choosing a more carbon intensive form of transportation (e.g. taxi). It may also have an additional benefit of increasing the attractiveness of a certain area and encouraging pedestrians to use services offered along their way.
Wayfinding systems can be improved by:
- Adapting the signage to the scale of human body: unlike vehicle signage, pedestrian wayfinding aides must be at or around eye level and easy to spot.
- Increased accessibility: signage should be available in multiple languages, determined by demographics and area needs, and should be described using clear, systematic graphics. It should also feature braille and other accommodations for those with eyesight limitations.
- Design centred around multimodality and pedestrian needs: wayfinding signs and resources should be placed around transport interchanges and stops in order to provide a more seamless transition between forms of transportation.
- Harmonization of signage and transportation information: to allow individuals to easily visually track their location and route, and to quickly orient themselves when switching from public transport to walking.
Clear wayfinding systems increase pedestrian comfort and safety and encourage walking, both by residents and visitors to a city. Clear, inclusive signage allows pedestrians to efficiently navigate from point A to point B and to become more familliar with their city, and establish themselves as a design priority for the modern city.
London established a program, Legible London, which is a city-wide pedestrian way-finding system managed by Transport for London. It provides an integrated set of maps and signs with distinctive and intuitive design features. These include freestanding signs, called ‘monoliths’, located at tube stations and bus shelters. The monoliths are topped with a distinctive yellow beacon cap and walking person icon. These features make the signs easy to spot within the urban environment and when viewed from a distance. Each monolith has two maps, a ‘finder’ map which displays a 5-minute walking circle, and a ‘planner’ map which displays a 15-minute walking circle. The maps illustrate significant landmarks in 3D, helping users identify the urban environment and also serving as ‘mental navigational tools’. Both planner maps and finder maps are ‘heads–up’ (as opposed to ‘north–up’), which many people find easier to use.
Glasgow established a wayfinding initiative in 2008 in order to facilitate pedestrian journeys around the city centre, which is known for its cultural initiatives, museums, concerts, and landmarks – all of which generate significant pedestrian traffic. The system of signs was based on a 15 square kilometre map of the city centre, housed in signs, posters, and fingerposts around the city. The master map highlights 250 local attractions and cultural sites and includes transit connections, information, and assistance points in addition.
Ottawa concluded a wayfinding project in 2021, which focused on the development of a cohesive, identity-building system that reflected the culture and needs of the Ottawa community. The project was completed with the input of multiple levels of government and additionally partnered with the neighbouring town of Gatineau and provides an interesting study in cross-border cooperation, as the cities are separated by only a river but have populations which predominantly speak different languages. Graphics represented the heritage, urban, and natural environments of Ottawa and was initially trialled as part of a revitalisation project in order to generate stakeholder investment.
Pedestrian only zones
Creating more pedestrian zones could encourage more people to walk, or to combine the utilisation of public transport with walking, as opposed to other more carbon intensive forms of transportation. This is especially critical when addressing the “last mile problem”, which continues to stymie efforts to nudge individuals towards more efficient forms of transportation. This can especially be the case in densely populated areas, with numerous possible destinations for pedestrians.
The attractiveness of pedestrian-only zones can be increased by the following elements:
- significantly reducing, slowing down, or excluding car traffic. This would reduce air and noise pollution in the selected areas and encourage walking
- separating lanes for other modes of transport, apart from cycling, this concerns especially electric scooters. In recent years most cities experienced worsening situation on pedestrian spaces due to the scooters lying around and constituting danger to the pedestrians.
- creating pedestrian corridors with public transport stations along the way, instead of limiting the pedestrian-only spaces to only the main squares. That would facilitate combining walking with the utilisation of public transport.
- thinking ahead of developing pedestrian areas, with separate lanes for cycling and electric scooters at the stage of city or district planning
- allow for shortcuts (e.g. through densely populated areas) that could not be available for other modes of transport.
- introducing complimentary policies to avoid traffic jams in other areas, which would increase political costs significantly
There are two main challenges for the creation of pedestrian-only spaces. Firstly, some inhabitants of the pedestrian-only zones may have to rely on car for different reasons. Secondly, some businesses whose customers may need to rely on car transport may be negatively affected. Both challenges can be mitigated by allowing for a very limited car travels, e.g. only one lane and significantly reduced speed. The businesses should allow for parking for only limited time. Alternatively, certain shops offering products that can only be transported by car, could offer delivery, especially if tax subsidies are offered for affected businesses. In this case, the respective company cars could be allowed into the pedestrian space during business hours. Inhabitants of the zone owning a car should have an underground parking space at their disposal. Especially the latter point requires long-term planning preferably implemented at the stage of urban or district planning.
London aims to become the world’s most walkable city and established the position of City Commissioner for Walking and Cycling to achieve this goal. They aim to target an increase of one million walking trips per day and make walking the most obvious, enjoyable, and attractive option for short trips within the city. Walking is prioritised in any infrastructure plan, and a series of pedestrian-centred guidelines were produced in order to ensure walkability of future designs. Additionally, planners focused on improving the walkability and safety of streets around schools through the use of stringent speed limits, crosswalks, and timed road closures enabling schoolchildren to walk to school more safely and efficiently.
Barcelona is consistently listed as one of the world’s most walkable cities, and an estimated one out of every four trips in the city is made via foot and often takes less than ten minutes. This is supported by the systematic, multi-use design of the city, which emphasises the development of streetscapes and compact design that prioritises and motivates short walking trips within one’s neighbourhood.
In addition to structural incentives to induce a higher number of walking journeys, individual incentives can also be utilised to motivate someone to take a greater number of journeys on foot. A simple, but innovative solution has been proposed by a number of healthcare providers who offer various incentives for those who achieve a certain number of steps per day or week for a certain period of time. The amount of steps can be registered on the mobile phone or special devices that count steps (e.g. FitBit, Apple Watch, or Garmin products). Many of these schemes rely on cash payouts for consumers who have achieved a certain step-level over a period of time, and studies have estimated that while these programs may result in a net loss in the first few years of use, after several years, the savings on health interventions as a result of healthier lifestyles results in positive fiscal outcomes for firms which introduce these programs, providing an additional financial incentive to introduce a step rewards program.
While these programmes focus on the positive health benefits of increased activity levels, the environmental benefits of increased walking journeys should not be understated. The increased activity levels of waking necessarily replaces some trips, including by passenger cars or motorcycles. They also facilitate utilisation of public transport, which always comes with higher number of steps than travelling by car. However, it is important that regular health check-ups are conducted for persons using electronic step-counting devices for insurance incentives, as there are an increasing number of ways to “spoof” insurance companies. Examples include attaching the FitBit or Smart device to a pendulum, drill, or metronome, to as shown on Unfit-Bits.
CSS Insurance, a Swiss health insurance firm offers a step rewards program with a cash payout system. Those who are insured by CSS have the option to connect their Garmin, FitBit, or POLAR devices and agree to transmit only their step data to CSS. Every day that the individual achieves over 7,500 steps they are rewarded 20 centimes, and 40 centimes on the days they achieve over 10,000 steps for a maximum payout of 146 CHF (141 EUR) per year.
Yas Life is a health-tech startup based in Berlin, which offers an app-based health tracker that partners with common activity trackers to monitor activity levels. They partner with insurance firms and offer a platform to implement “digital bonus programs” which can be used to incentivise positive health behaviours, particularly walking. In addition, their own app B2C offers a rewards program where individuals receive points and prizes based on daily step count and completed activities.
Techniker Krankenkasse in Germany offers bonus program TK-Fit. For walking at least 10.000 steps per week for 10 weeks within 12 weeks period, its participants receive bonus points, which when combined with additional health measures, can be swapped into a yearly dividend.
As part of a comprehensive walkability plan and any initiative to increase walking trips and pedestrian activity, pedestrian scale lighting must be considered. Street-level lighting has long been built for and around vehicle traffic, often disregarding the needs and comfort of pedestrians.
Pedestrian scale lighting serves four general purposes as those on foot journey from point A to point B:
- aid in both actual and perceived safety
- assist orientation and way-finding in the dark
- ensure pedestrian comfort at night
- increase the attractiveness of public spaces
Studies have shown that pedestrians feel safer in spaces with adequate lighting and, critically, crime rates tend to be lower in spaces with improved street lighting. In addition, lighting is especially important at night, and in places which have limited hours of daylight in the winter, particularly with regards to navigating around obstacles and along journeys. Adequate lighting at pedestrian scale in public spaces and highly trafficked areas is critical to motivating a higher number of walking journeys. When considering lighting at the pedestrian scale, it is important to consider the efficiency and environmental impact of any lighting system in order to ensure that the cost of the lighting does not outweigh the benefit of increased foot traffic.
Some strategies to maximise efficiency include:
- careful planning to ensure adequate lighting without producing too much light. Considerations for appropriate spacing and coverage should be made for maximum efficiency
- utilisation of the most efficient lighting solutions (for example LED or LPS lights, solar powered lights etc.)
- utilisation of dark sky friendly lights to minimise light pollution beyond what is strictly necessary
By understanding the needs of pedestrians and utilising the most efficient lighting solution for each particular situations, cities can motivate journeys on foot and increase the attractiveness of their public spaces while respecting environmental concerns.
Bradford, UK is in the midst of completing a street lighting project which aims to replace inefficient street lights with more efficient, environmentally friendly lights as part of their goal to become carbon neutral by 2038. The project is ambitious, with a goal of replacing 59,000 lanterns and 17,000 lampposts in the area while modernising the system to be as energy efficient as possible. By replacing outdated lights with LED lights, Bradford aims to save more than £2 million per year in energy costs and reduce carbon emissions by 6,000 tonnes per year. The lights will provide more specific data on energy consumption, allowing for more targeted decision making and greater efficiency in the long run, in addition to the on-street benefits of improved lighting.
Oslo. Norway implemented an innovative plan beginning in 2011 to retrofit and replace street lights with more energy efficient options in order to reduce energy demand and carbon emissions. Old lights were replaced with new, high efficiency options which feature data collection and communications systems that allow the city to control the light level as efficiently as possible. The level of each lamp can be specifically tailored to its location and the weather conditions via the communication system, and operators can additionally see which lamps are malfunctioning or burnt out. This system is estimated to increase efficiency by 30% in addition to energy savings brought on by the new lamps, for a total of 70% reduction in energy demands compared to the old system. The ability to adjust lighting levels relative to demand and location has additionally been hailed as an innovative and environmentally friendly solution to the safety concerns listed above, as light levels can be increased when needed to improve safety outcomes, and dimmed when not necessary to reduce energy demand and light pollution.
Strasbourg, France has won multiple awards for its work in creating pedestrian-friendly spaces over the last decade. The municipality is focused on pedestrian-friendly lighting, for example, smart pedestrian lights with a motion sensor that detects motion 35m away, and controls the intensity of the light (also implemented in Toulouse, Marseille, Paris, Lyon and Montpellier), saving up to 70% in energy requirements. A further example of pedestrian-focus lighting is at a busy pedestrian under-crossing, through which more than 400 cyclists and 50 pedestrians transit per hour on a weekday. In 2018, a competition was held for ideas on how to redo the lighting in the underpass. The winning project embeds solar studs in the road leading to the tunnel, and uses a motion sensor to control the lighting in the underpass, which displays as “intersecting colourful blades of light” with an EU-flag colour scheme, given Strasbourg’s importance in the European Union.
The choice of mode of transport is, to a large degree, determined by the distance that needs to be travelled. In a car-centred city, the distances between homes and essential services, green spaces, or employment opportunities, do not play a major role. Instead, the focus is on facilitating transport routes. This results in an entrenchment of unsustainable practices, high commuting times, reduced air quality, and higher CO2 emissions.
An alternative approach to the car-centred city, with its long distances and high transit times, is the concept of a “city of a short distances”, or “compact city”, which is built around delivering a complex space of mixed functions, with the goal of reducing demand for transport. Along these lines, Moreno proposed the 15 Minute City, which seeks to pivot city design towards a mode of urban planning where emphasis is placed on accessibility and multimodality – i.e. major services are within a 15 minute walk, transit ride, or cycle. The key dimensions of a 15 Minute City are: density, proximity, diversity, and digitalisation. The 15 Minute City may be achieved through increased use of mixed-use housing models, which combine living spaces with office spaces, shops, health practices, and other essential services. Availability of green spaces within 15 minutes walking distance is also essential for recreation purposes.
The idea of the 15 Minute City can be applied at three different levels: 1.) a five minute walk, 2.) a 15 minute walk, 3.) a 15 minute bike ride. Access to daily needs and small businesses should be within the first band, full mixed use, parks, schools, and at least one regional transit stop should be within the second band, and the third band should contain higher education, cultural, and medical facilities. Population density must be considered when assuming the services within these bands that the community can feasibly support. These recommendations are based on an assumption of average density = at least 8 living spaces per acre, with 2,600 people within the first band (+/- 20%).
From an implementation perspective, development of the 15-Minute City is challenging due to the engrained path dependency: existing cities are the result of urban planning based on car availability or a lack of any comprehensive planning altogether. Therefore, the 15-Minute City is more a flexible development process than the existing model: the more basic services can be provided within the 15 minutes walking distance, the higher the activity level for walking or cycling, some of which will replace carbon intensive modes of transport.
Implementation of the 15-Minute City design can occur in two general phases:
- In the short term, instead of completely overhauling existing infrastructure, incentives can be offered to introduce necessary services within the 15-Minute walking circle. For example, introducing programs that would reduce rent for doctors’ offices in areas which currently do not have a doctor in the close neighberhood. Other short term approaches to implementing 15-Minute City ideals include: turning school-yards into public parks when schools are closed, or offering preferential treatment to small shops or bakeries.
- In the long term, implementation of the 15-Minute City can be accomplished through targeted, carefully considered urban planning and design, to renew current spaces and build new ones as cities grow and develop.
By applying these strategies, cities can become more resilient and build community hubs centred around close-knit neighbourhoods – increasing health and quality of life while decreasing energy demand, emissions, and congestion.
Paris, France set several targets in 2019 aimed at establishing a 15-Minute City, where all essential needs are within a short walk or bike ride. This was promoted by its mayor Anne Hidalgo, who appointed a commissioner for the 15-minute city. The mayor has banned high-polluting vehicles, created pedestrian and cyclist-only highways within the city and created green spaces in school yards for public use. Other cities (notably Madrid, Milan, Ottowa, and Seattle) have declared or adopted plans based on the reforms achieved in Paris.
The Mayor Lopez of Bogota, Colombia announced the implementation of a 15 and 30-Minute City strategy in 30 neighbourhoods. Specific actions taken include: the development of “green corridors” for cyclists and pedestrians, reclamation of public space for greening and community building, and encouraging mixed-use buildings.
C40 Cities, a coalition of cities focused on fighting climate change, have proposed the 15-minute city as both a pathway for sustainable development as well as post-Covid-19 recovery. They have released a guidebook for implementing the 15-minute city plan with a specific focus on sustainability. They list ten key approaches including the “complete neighbourhood” concept, people centred mobility, connected and digitalised spaces, ensuring space for everyone, green construction, green buildings, circular use of resources, green solutions, sustainable lifestyle promotion, and building a green local economy.