Pretty much everyone agrees that pedestrians should be at the top of the urban transport hierarchy. Yet, almost universally, pedestrians’ needs are ignored and marginalised: pavements are poorly maintained, often overgrown and rarely gritted in winter; too narrow in many places; obstructed by lampposts, signposts, junction boxes, now electric vehicle charging points, and frequently by parked vehicles. Light-controlled crossings make pedestrians wait far longer than drivers; zebra crossings are rare; and ‘courtesy’ crossings and ‘shared space’ are token attempts to give pedestrians more freedom.
It’s not economists’ fault: government guidance attaches real value to pedestrians’ time, safety and comfort. It even recognises that reducing walking and waiting times for people using public transport is worth twice as much as reducing someone’s car journey by the same amount of time.
The problem is partly that transport bodies routinely count motor vehicles, but rarely pedestrians. It means they know how many people will benefit from a scheme to save five minutes on the road, but not how many pedestrians it will delay or inconvenience. People who walk only feature as delays at road crossings to those in motor vehicles.
The other problem is that transport planning has mostly been about making road trips faster for more and more vehicles. How do you measure the benefit of a new footbridge over a river? Count how many people currently swim across and calculate their journey time saving? The actual benefits derive from people switching from driving, or moving house or job to make use of the new bridge. These behaviour changes are fiendishly difficult to forecast.
Climate and public health emergencies require a complete inversion of how we plan transport infrastructure: perpetuating car-dependent lifestyles is untenable. We must instead design and build a future in which everyone can lead sustainable, healthy and fulfilled lives. Access everywhere on foot and public transport is central to that vision.
Technology now exists to count pedestrians. Transport bodies need to use it routinely to ensure pedestrians are included in economic analyses. They must also make a strategic ethical decision to shift investment from roads to footways.
This article was first published in the Cambridge Independent on 11 March 2020.