The aim: a million extra walking trips taken each day as part of a larger strategy to get 80 per cent of all trips in London taken on foot, by bicycle or by public transport before 2041.
The investment: a record £2.2bn in streets across London to make them better for walking and cycling, and improve air quality.
This July, the Mayor of London announced London’s first Walking Action Plan, part of a bigger vision to reduce air pollution in the capital city of 8.8 million people while boosting road safety and physical fitness.
The plan is meant to remove known barriers to walking by:
• Designing, building and managing streets for people walking, by delivering better public spaces, more walking routes and more numerous and wider pedestrian crossings;
• Ensuring that walking is prioritised in every new infrastructure scheme, through London’s first ever pedestrian design guidance and a range of other tools and analysis to support boroughs to deliver local schemes;
• Enabling thousands more children to walk to school by doubling the number of Gold accredited STARS schools which champion healthy routes to school, and by supporting timed road closures, car free days and 20mph speed limits around schools;
• Rolling out innovative new traffic signal technology that makes it safer and easier for pedestrians to cross roads, while minimising congestion; and
• Creating new ‘Active Travel Hubs’ at London Underground stations, making it easier to walk as part of an onward journey.
Sparking a national trend?
The announcement came just weeks after Greater Manchester unveiled its plan to build the biggest cycling and walking network in the United Kingdom, and just days before the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, triggered a “high” air pollution alert in the city.
“This is the second time in six months that we have had to use the ‘high’ alert system and shows just why air pollution is a public health crisis,” he said in a press release.
And, just five days after the walkability plan was released, the Mayor’s office also launched an ambitious plan to eliminate deaths on London’s roads that emphasized the deep importance of urban planning to reaping a multitude of co-benefits for health, liveability and policy cost-effectiveness.
Recent research estimates that if Londoners spent 20 minutes a day cycling or walking, it would save the country’s National Health Service £1.7 billion a year.
“By making it easier for Londoners to leave their cars at home and walk instead, it will tackle the air pollution crisis and reduce congestion as London’s population continues to grow,” said London’s first Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Will Norman.
This population is expected to grow from 8.7 million to 10.5 million over the next 25 years, generating more than five million additional trips each day across the transport network.
“Crisis” is hardly an exaggeration: the UK’s air pollution was thrice declared “illegal” by the European courts, and the country is due to come before its highest court for failing to adequately tackle the problem.
Nearly 9,500 Londoners die prematurely from air pollution, according to research commissioned by Transport for London and the Greater London Authority.
That statistic was given a human face last month, when the conclusions of an inquiry into Ella Kissi-Debrah’s death were released.
“Without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died”
Nine-year-old Ella, who loved swimming, dancing and football, had an asthmatic seizure and died when air pollution spike shot up where she lived.
It was the last in a series of asthma attacks in the years her family had lived there, 25 metres from London’s South Circular Road, a “notorious pollution hotspot”, and, like all but one of her hospital admissions, it coincided with a spike in air pollution in her locality.
The latter was one of the findings of a report by Prof Stephen Holgate, chair of the government’s advisory committee on the effects of air pollution.
Hers might just be the first death directly attributable to air pollution in the city: Prof Holgate’s report, according to BBC, said exposure to air pollutants was a “key driver” of Ella’s condition and concluded that there was a “real prospect that without unlawful levels of air pollution, Ella would not have died”.
“Unlawful levels of air pollution contributed to the cause and seriousness of Ella’s asthma in a way that greatly compromised her quality of life and was causative of her fatal asthma attack,” it said.
Researchers used monitoring stations close to Ella’s home to chart the correlations between levels of in nitrogen dioxide and PM10 (fine particulate matter) in the locality and her hospital admissions.
And, as in many large cities in the world, the main contributor of nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter pollution in London is traffic.
An uphill challenge?
Still, the initiatives to encourage people to turn from cars to walking, cycling and public transport have their work cut out for them.
Even as efforts to eliminate the school run are being implemented — 1 in 4 cars on the road in London at peak hour are making school runs — new figures from the National Travel Survey show that fewer primary school students are walking or cycling to school.
Just 51 per cent of primary school children are doing this, down from 53 per cent in 2017, and a huge shift from the 70 per cent of primary school kids who walked to school a generation ago.
Mayor Khan is persistent, though, this month calling on every London borough to get involved in this year’s World Car Free Day on September 22, while Transport for London is working with more than 100 schools to drop the car for the school run that day, urging parents or carers to walk or cycle with their children to school instead.
These efforts are the latest in a series of initiatives out of the Mayor’s office to combat air pollution in London, famously led by the launch of an Ultra Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), which requires minimum emission standards for vehicles; vehicles that do not meet these standards must pay a daily £10 charge in addition to the Congestion Charge.
Others include investing £300 million in greening London’s bus fleet and stopping the licensing of new diesel taxis from 2018.
Banner photo by Roberto Trombetta, CC BY-NC 2.0.