by Antony Taft
How far do you walk each week? If there is one thing that most health professionals agree upon it is that our state of health is greatly enhanced if we each have a brisk walk each day. It seems logical to surmise that if this simple direction was followed, NHS costs might be significantly reduced.
Perhaps surprisingly, built environment professionals can have a significant effect on peoples’ physical activity and this is well recognised in the USA where there is a trend towards “active design” agreed between health authorities and architects. This might mean, for instance, locating stair cases near the main entrance instead of hiding them at the rear of the lifts. This principle can be applied beyond buildings to the external environment. The trend towards pedestrianisation over the last few decades has undoubtedly helped, although increasing walking is a positive spin-off rather than a planned benefit. However, in the Country as a whole the National Travel Survey 2012 states that walking trips fell by 27% since 1997. Conversely, the number of households with two or more cars has risen to 31% from only 17% in 1986 – this in the midst of a recession.
We might have hoped that the Government’s recent Comprehensive Spending Review would have provided a good opportunity to reduce the emphasis on highways and encourage other forms of travel. In fact, the words “cycling” and “walking” are not even mentioned.
Any trip to the Netherlands soon confirms that a commitment to cycling and walking was made many decades ago and interestingly the World Health Organisation ranks the Netherlands at the top of its Health Consumer Index compared to the UK placed at number 12. Obviously there are a number of variables here including waiting times, results, and generosity, but the reduced numbers of patients can be agreed as have a bearing on this outstanding ranking.
I am sure my very able-bodied neighbour is no different to most when he jumps in the car to drive around to the off-license on the local main road when I can walk it in five or six minutes. I refuse to believe that time is that precious to anyone. But how do I encourage him to walk? Perhaps the route needs to be desirable, direct and dependable – i.e. convenient and secure – in which case Birmingham needs a re-think. How about making the cyclist and pedestrian routes the priority in local network/commuter planning, whilst the road is indirect? I walk through Aston Campus in order to see some greenery on my way to the train station and it makes that trip desirable instead of a drudge. Apart from major A routes, is it not time the UK started to put less priority on those who just wiggle their right ankles to get from A to B? It is not as if we have a large motor industry any more…