Jul 28, 2016

Is walking to work the way to go?

Walking accounts for only a small share of journeys to work but has enormous potential. Its great advantage is it doesn't require huge licks of money for specialised infrastructure

Alan Davies — Editor of The Urbanist

Alan Davies

Editor of The Urbanist

Journey to work by mode, metropolitan Melbourne (source data: VISTA)
Journey to work by mode, metropolitan Melbourne (source data: VISTA)

Melbourne writer Clare Boyd-Macrae reckons there’s a solution for those who’re sick of traffic jams on their commute; start walking to work:

I’ve been walking to work for 10 years now, and cannot understand why anyone who lives six kilometres or less from their work place would do anything else. The time it takes is a non-issue. For the many thousands of us who live in the inner suburbs and work in the city, it adds barely any time to your daily commute at all.

The attraction of walking all the way is it’s an efficient way of keeping fit (two birds with one stone), it’s cheap, and it’s often not that much slower than public transport. It’s also valuable socially; it’s the most sustainable mode and it reduces demand – and hence the need to expand capacity – for other modes.

It’s also a great way to start the day. I used to walk to Sydney’s Macquarie St from Surry Hills for years, and later from North Fitzroy to the eastern end of Melbourne’s CBD. I used to walk home too; apart from the time two guys came at me with a knife in Hyde Park one night, it was a great way to end the day.

Walking is indeed the way to go, but it’s not a particularly popular way of getting to work in Melbourne at present. Only 1.9% of commuters choose to get to work by walking as their main mode. That’s less than the share who brave Melbourne’s traffic to commute by bicycle. It’s bigger in the inner ring of suburbs (4.5%) where Ms Boyd-Macrae lives but still way behind cycling’s 9.2% mode share.

Ms Boyd-Macrae says she lives in West Brunswick and walks 6.5 km to the eastern end of the CBD. She says it takes her 65 minutes door-to-door compared to 45 minutes by public transport. That extra 20 minutes, she says, means “I have done a large part of my exercise for the day”.

She’s at the top end for walking to work. The average one-way commute on foot in Melbourne is just 1.1 km and the average one-way trip duration is 13 minutes. But walking to work is a more popular option for inner city residents; their average walk to work is 2.9 km and takes 28 minutes.

The latter is much the same as the average journey to work by car for inner city residents – 33 minutes – but much shorter than the average 47 minute one-way commute on public transport.

Ms Boyd-Macrae compares the benefits of walking to driving but the reality is the great majority of CBD workers travel by public transport. Her choice therefore isn’t delivering a lot directly in terms of sustainability but it helps indirectly by making public transport less crowded in the morning peak and hence more attractive to all travellers (I note though that she doesn’t appear to walk home).

There’re the usual comments on her article about walking not getting enough funding or priority in terms of supporting regulations. That’s a legitimate issue, but it’s important that advocates don’t get too precious about it.

One of the great advantage of walking is the fact that it doesn’t require huge licks of funding like other modes do, even cycling. It’s a slow mode and it’s supremely flexible. Walkers can cope with a lot of issues like uneven surfaces and obstacles that would be too much for mechanised modes.

It’s nice to walk to and from work via a pleasant park but again, let’s not get too uptight about it. Walkers connect with the city as it is; sometimes magnificent, sometimes seedy, most of the time ever-changing because of the people who use it. In my experience walking to and from work is never boring.

The important factors that bear on the attractiveness of walking to work are (a) traffic separation (b) personal safety, particularly at night, and (c) minimising contact with pollution from cars, trucks and buses. Separation from traffic is pretty much already in place in Australian cities; lighting, activated uses and policing can help with personal security; the best approach to pollution is to tackle the problem directly at the source i.e. the vehicle.

While walking is not a large main mode for the journey to work, note that it’s an adjunct to the 18.9% journeys to work in Melbourne that are made by bus, tram and train. It’s also a necessary part of some car-based work trips where the commuter leaves his or her vehicle in an off-site parking facility. I expect the total number of steps from this ancillary walking exceeds those from walking as the main commuting mode.

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3 thoughts on “Is walking to work the way to go?

  1. Alan Davies

    Plenty of examples on Twitter of where designers prioritise motoring over walking e.g. beg buttons at traffic lights, intersections without pedestrian traffic lights on one quadrant, stairs at pedestrian overpasses. Then there are cases where pedestrians seem to be forgotten e.g. suburban streets without paved footpaths in the nature strip, motorbikes parked on footpaths, construction sites taking over footpaths.

    All legitimate issues but I think they’re better at explaining the ideology of designers than why so few Melburnians walk to work. Providing more segregated infrastructure is essential for promoting cycling because of safety worries; and providing a dense network of frequent services is essential for encouraging public transport use. But in the case of walking I don’t think improving infrastructure is as important to anything like the same extent (suburban USA is a different proposition – often there’re no nature strips much less paved footpaths).

    What really matters for increasing walking’s mode share generally and for the journey to work specifically is land use policy – higher densities of activities and greater mix of activities. That also supports ready access to frequent public transport and provides strong disincentives to car use. It’s a key reason why Paris has such a high proportion of trips made on foot (39% for all purposes in the metro area according to this report and 47% withing the Peripherique according to another report). Let’s be careful about glibly “infrastructurising” walking as if it were just a variation on driving.

  2. Tony Morton

    Thanks Alan for a point well made. It is clear that among the worst things we can do when designing a city or neighbourhood is to discourage walking—and yet we do it all the time.

    It does strike me as odd, though, that the VISTA data apparently makes walking out to be only half as prevalent as cycling for journeys to work, when the Census data says the exact opposite. I can understand that the Census is just one snapshot of a single day in August, but nonetheless it’s one of the few data sets based on the entire population rather than just a sample—and the time series data are remarkably consistent. Cycling sits at around 1-2% of journeys to work in Melbourne on Census day and has done for 40 years: walking meanwhile was 6% of journeys in 1976, declined to below 4% in 1986 and has held at between 3% and 4% ever since. (I’m basing this on Mees and Groenhart’s 2012 tabulation of the historical data.)

    If anything I would expect the Census to under-report walking as a mode of travel to work, given that trips are classified as ‘walking’ only if there was no other mode used. And cold August weather would be expected to depress walking as much as it would cycling.

    For cycling I’d certainly like to believe the VISTA statistics rather than the figures from the Census—but I really do hesitate to accept that walking is only half as prevalent even for journeys to work given how many employed people do answer ‘walked only’ on the Census.

  3. Roger Clifton

    I walk to work 1.8 km, taking 23 minutes. If walking, I always arrive cheerful, energetic and ready to provide TLC for the denizens at either end. On the other hand, if I want to stay grumpy, I take the bus. Isn’t it good to have options!

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