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All Walks of Life

27-08-13 Add new comment

The sum of the whole is this: walk and be happy; walk and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose.

Charles Dickens

If you were to be asked what our human form is best adept to do, would you even consider walking?  Might walking be something that is just too obvious or might it be something that in our busy worlds, we prefer the more effortless but still very valid associations like say sleeping or eating?  If I asked you what our roads are best designed for, would you even consider walking?  I would hazard a guess that most people would probably plump for driving.  A perfectly valid response.

Invention has long been the focus of transport development from sails, to steam boats, to trains and motorised cars – all have sought to enable economic and spatial expansion within reduced timeframes.   

Four major stages of technological innovations in transport have been identified by New York Professor and author, Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue[1]:

  • The pre-industrial era (small village economies, sail ships supporting a system of colonial trade and emerging canal transport);
  • The industrial revolution (mechanization of land and maritime transport with trains and combustion engines, and more developed canal systems);
  • Fordism (economies of scale given by assembly line approach makes the automobile affordable with increasingly dispersed ownership); and
  • Post-Fordism (globalization, commercialization of the airways, higher density trade with cargo ships and heavy goods vehicles, higher speed trains, faster more energy efficient cars).

Where in all of this is walking?  Whilst our human form is very well designed to walk, we pay so little attention to supporting opportunities in our street design.  All too often in our segregated approach to planning, we design them out. Does the mesh of some of our 1960s and beyond residential suburbs of dendritic street networks and their cul de sacs entice you to walk?  If you get the feeling they are aimed at channelling traffic to distributor routes, well for the most part they are, and then we wonder how we got so car dependent.  Figure 1 below taken for the Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets (DMURS) illustrates how such roads minimise walking access and connectivity.

 Fig1a  Fig 1b

Figure 1          Illustration of the permeability restricting nature of designing according to the principles of segregation: in the case above two houses with gardens backing onto each other are up to 4km walking distance apart. [from Figure 2.5 in Design Manual for Urban Roads and Streets.]


Why walk anyway?  Making the positive and increasingly apparent links between walking and our health, the environment, cost savings, and optimising efficiencies (e.g. reducing congestion, adding to local vitality and providing the connection to public transport options) seems to be a surprisingly modern concept (though the health benefits weren’t lost on Mr Dickens).

In modern urban western communities, 20-40% of the population aren’t driving due to disabilities, low incomes, or age factors.  Todd Littman of Victoria Transport Policy Institute in Australia recently reported that “there is evidence of significant latent demand for non-motorized travel; many people want to walk and cycle more than they currently do but face obstacles”.  However despite urban sprawl, out of town developments, and other obstacles many short trips are still more efficient by walking (or cycling).  Walking continues to be one of the most common leisure pursuits, and perhaps increasingly so for the purposes of health and fitness.

The rational to link walking with health is strong, and what better way to build walking into our busy lives than making some of our essential daily trips on foot.  On a population level, research by Bassatt et al. in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, 2008 [2], has demonstrated the inverse association between active transportation and obesity rates (Figure 2 below).  The second graph below in Figure 3 is taken from the same study and shows first that walking (and indeed cycling) are more predominant in Europe than in the United States, Canada, and Australia.  But also that Ireland appears to be almost as car dependent as its new world counterparts.  And the consequences of this in terms of population obesity are not good - Figure 2 suggests that Ireland’s prevalence of obesity is akin to rates in these countries.

 Fig 2    Fig 3

Figure 2   Obesity prevalence (BMI > 30 kg.m-2) and rates of active transport [3] [from Basset et al]


Figure 3   Percentage of walking, cycling, and public transport trips in Europe, North America, and Australia [from Basset et al]

In one of my previous blog articles, I observed that policy and planning guidelines appear to be taking an about turn in thinking to support active travel, it seems the societal and personal benefits of active travel are catching on at least in theory.  We even have a whole raft of supportive and increasingly popular buzz words such as place making, public realm, connectivity, permeability, all of which are conducive to ‘walkability’.  And research into fairer appraisal of walking in terms of cost benefit analysis and better evaluation of active travel trips appears to be nudging forwards too (e.g WebTAG Unit 3.14.1 - Guidance on the Appraisal of Walking and Cycling Schemes, August 2012).  Of course few would suggest we should concentrate on walking in splendid isolation, but perhaps it is time to recognise its position at the top of the transport user hierarchy (see Table 2.21 DMURS)?  Perhaps we have reached a post ‘post-Ford era’ of integrated (even sustainable) multi-modality?

[1]     Rodrigue, Jean-Paul; The Geography of Transport Systems, 3rd Edition (2013), New York: Routledge; 

[2]   Bassett, et al. (2011), “Active Transportation and Obesity in Europe, North America, and Australia,” ITE Journal, Vol. 81/8, pp. 24-28;  or at

[3]     Combined walking, cycling and public transport trips


Article Author:


Sinead Flavin, Transport Insights' Project Manager


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