Active travel is an afterthought

Written by Jenni Davidson on 27 March 2018 in Comment

Jenni Davidson on how being a pedestrian is an unpleasant experience when the car is king

Edinburgh rush hour - credit Chris Hill

It’s not unusual for me to think ‘I could probably walk faster than this’ when sitting on a bus in rush-hour traffic, but right now I can, literally, walk faster than the bus for a good half-mile stretch.

I have actually missed the bus, watched it drive off and then overtaken it on foot – and sometimes the one in front of it as well – as it sits in near stationary traffic for up to half an hour. 

While the normal rush-hour traffic is exacerbated at the moment by roadworks – something that seems to be an almost permanent feature in the year I have lived west of Edinburgh city centre – there is an ongoing issue of too many cars, vans and lorries, which unnecessarily deliver in rush hour, stopping in greenways and blocking whole lanes of traffic, causing delays and blockages. 

A poor bus journey may encourage people to take the car, exacerbating the problem, although as it happens, it’s encouraging me to walk more. And while the walk through Edinburgh’s Old Town is certainly scenic enough, it isn’t entirely pleasant. 

Among the barriers along the route that show the car is still king are numerous places with poor crossings or where pedestrians have to cross two or three sides of a junction to get to where they want to go, too narrow pavements where to pass another person you have to walk in the road, bad parking blocking the pavement or junctions, and speeding traffic ignoring the unenforced 20mph limit. I do wonder, too, whether the benefits of the exercise will be outweighed by the health effects of air pollution. 

That’s not even to mention cycling, which I am not willing to risk my life doing on streets without proper cycle lanes. A few painted red strips here and there do not count in my book.

Active travel is high on the agenda for its significant health benefits, with the Scottish Government investing an extra £40m in it and aiming for 10 per cent of everyday journeys to be taken by bike by 2020. 

But recent statistics show that just 31 per cent of commuting is done by active travel and bus travel went down by 5.3 per cent between 2011 and 2017, although cycling did increase by 2.9 per cent in a year. 

And last week, Scotland’s first-ever walking summit took place in Edinburgh. It brought together academic experts and public policymakers to discuss making cities more pedestrian friendly with the aim of highlighting the economic as well as the health benefits of walking.

Stuart Hay, director of Living Streets Scotland, which organised the event, said: “Many of us are already aware of the health benefits on offer from ensuring our towns and cities are safe and enjoyable places to walk. However, prioritising people over vehicles has significant economic benefits too, helping to reduce costly congestion, increase footfall for local businesses and create places which attract investment.”

But despite some positive developments, such as Glasgow’s city centre avenue plans, we are very far from putting pedestrians or cyclists first in our cities. You shouldn’t need to look up special maps for dedicated ‘quiet routes’ or undertake special cycle proficiency training. Until a cyclist or pedestrian can get from door to destination without detour, disadvantage or danger to life and health, we are not really prioritising active travel. 

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