Melbourne City Council's 2014 - 2017 Walking Plan cites this scene as an example of pedestrian crowding that needs to be addressed by policy makers

In their 20102 analysis of the journey to work, Transport Policy at the Crossroads: Travel to work in Australian capital cities 1976-2011, Paul Mees and Lucy Groenhart noted that “cycling is of negligible importance” for commuting and “higher cycling rates are usually accompanied by lower walking rates”.

They went on to say:

Cycling receives much more attention from policy makers than walking, even though it plays a much smaller role in the journey to work: one possible reason is that cycling is by far the most male-dominated transport mode, reflecting the gender composition of the transport planning profession.

I agree that cycling currently gets more policy and media focus than walking when it comes to commuting. But I think there are more straightforward explanations than the one advanced by the authors.

The key one is Australian cities already have a massive historical legacy of segregated walking infrastructure – primarily footpaths or nature strips – so the “catch up” we’re seeing with cycling infrastructure isn’t anywhere near as pressing. (1)

Moreover new suburbs in Australia are constructed with dedicated footpaths on both sides of streets as a matter of course. Commuters can walk to the bus stop or station without sharing road space; at busy intersections they have access to specialised crossings and/or traffic signals. (2)

With only a few exceptions, our footpaths also have a lot of capacity. They were sized with other attributes in mind besides walking; like separation between buildings and room for landscaping.

When it comes to walking we’re a bit like Amsterdam is to cycling; there’s room for improvement at the margin – particularly in how we manage what we’ve got – but the basic infrastructure and policy commitment is already there.

Another explanation is walking simply doesn’t demand as much of infrastructure as more specialised, mechanised forms of transport like cycling do.

For one thing pedestrians move slowly. Another is the human body is enormously flexible and nimble. Pedestrians can instantly and unconsciously calculate efficient paths through moving objects, around obstacles, and over changing terrain.

We’ve had millennia of experience of walking in crowds or at least in groups. A large crowd dispersing from an event is a wonder of efficient shifting and sorting; it’s what the most optimistic boosters imagine driverless cars will be able to achieve.

Another part of the explanation could be that cycling is commonly seen as a potential substitute for driving to work in Australia’s relatively dispersed cities whereas walking – other than in the dense centre – mostly isn’t. (3)

Underlying all this is probably the simple fact that cycling is seen as “new” and exciting (the Scandis are doing it!), while walking is old and reliable; it doesn’t need a special skill or even money.

None of this means there isn’t a need to improve walking for the journey to work and more generally, particularly in relation to safety. Regrettably, 83 pedestrians died on Australian roads in the first six months of this year.

The speed of walking is also a problem in some places. For example, in dense locations the priority given to vehicles over pedestrians at traffic lights often doesn’t reflect the relative number of travellers using the two modes.

There are also instances of pedestrian congestion during peak periods and before and after major events; but we need to be very careful when looking at these sorts of cases to avoid falling into the trap of treating walking like driving.

What Melbourne City Council calls pedestrian “crowding” (see exhibit) in it’s Walking Plan 2014-17 would certainly constitute congestion if all those people were cars, but for walkers that level of “crowding” isn’t within cooee of being a problem. That’s the advantage of walking.

Both modes need more attention from policy-makers than they’re getting, but it’s neither a surprise nor a problem that cycling is getting more than walking.

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  1. There’s also an extensive network of privately provided walking infrastructure built for public use e.g. Emporium Melbourne, Myer.
  2. Indeed, the level of public and private investment in walking infrastructure in publicly accessible spaces, even just for the journey to work, surely exceeds that for cycling by a considerable margin.
  3. For example, only 5% of commutes to workplaces in the City of Melbourne are made by walking (only).