Walking gets a facelift

© Flickr / lindejesus / Creative Commons

© Flickr / lindejesus / Creative Commons

The European initiative COST 358 – Pedestrian Quality Needs, in which 20 countries have taken part during the last four years, was concluded at EPFL on Friday. The goal of the initiative is to promote walking as a means of getting about, in the context of transport policies.

Because walking is such a natural activity, it has been rather neglected in terms of policy-making on urbanism and transport. This is especially true in rich countries, where there often exists more than one motorized vehicle for two people.

Over the last 10 years, the gridlocking of transport in towns and cities, coupled with the tendency towards sedentary lifestyles in these wealthy countries, has resulted in multiple efforts to encourage urban travel on foot. Some of these initiatives came from special interest groups, such as the Transport and Environment Association. On a larger scale, international initiatives such as the European COST 358 initiative, begun in 2006, have crystallized the efforts of a number of scientists with the goal of better understanding the issues, but also trying to modify the way that those in power consider this means of transport – the only one that we all by definition share. The overall objective of the initiative, published in a long report called “Pedestrian quality needs”, was to determine the needs and expectations of users, and then leverage this input to encourage people to consider walking, alongside other types of mobility.

Adapting the statistics
Switzerland appears to be relatively in advance in these questionings. This is what has been found at EPFL, where the Chôros laboratory and the Transport Center (TraCE) have put their energies at the service of the COST 358 initiative. These two entities also organized its closing symposium, which took place on Friday, at the Polydôme, and had as its theme “Revival of walking in Switzerland and Europe”. Mainstays of the project, Sonia Lavadinho and Dominique von der Mühll focused on the situation in Switzerland, in cooperation with Zurich-based Daniel Sauter, of Urban Mobility.

However, “when reflecting on issues of mobility, no single mode of transport can be studied independently of others”, explains Sonia Lavadinho. In fact, slight modifications to the way in which statistics are produced can have important political consequences. “When we create a graphic that takes into account the number of kilometers travelled, walking is almost inexistent compared to train or car travel. Unfortunately, budget allocations for transport infrastructures have for a long time been based on these kinds of statistics”, she explains.

Since the beginning of the current decade, a new theoretical model has held sway. We now also integrate the duration of use of each “vehicle” and the number of changes in mode of transport for a given journey. In fact, we consider that there is a walking phase as soon as it’s necessary to walk more than 25 meters – if only in changing from a bus to a train. Since the new model has been introduced, the importance of walking has had a big effect on the statistics, attracting the attention of those in power. The COST project now intends to impose this approach on a larger scale.

Ecology and public health
This new level of statistical visibility will be followed by a burning question to the politicians concerning public health. “The battle against sedentary lifestyles and its dangers is particularly reinforced by a message in favor of walking. The initiatives concerning prevention dispose of budgets at national level, whereas the problems of urban planning are handled by local administrations. The leverage is not the same!” analyzes the specialist, happy to notice the current drive towards more healthy lifestyles, which fosters the emergence of a fashion for active means of transport. “Walking has even become trendy!”

Resolving the paradox and conferring a political importance on walking that corresponds to its real level of use will take a little more time, especially in those countries where these problems have been neglected. “However, walking is at the centre of discussions on the planning of urban environments”, concludes Dominique von der Mühll. “Its inclusion will favorably influence, eventually, everyone’s quality of life.”

Author: Emmanuel Barraud

Source: EPFL