As a personal trainer in London I’m often asked by my clients: “what exercise should I do between our sessions to help me lose weight?”. Part of my reply is always: “Walk more.”
Walking is one of the easiest exercise activities. No equipment needed apart from a good pair of trainers, no barriers of technique or expertise, and totally free. But just how pedestrian friendly is London?
Ask any keen walker in London and you’ll get the following complaints: air pollution, aggressive road traffic, aggressive cyclists on the pavement, dangerous pedestrian junctions, difficulties of navigating the city, the list goes on.
Progressive infrastructure plans in London
There are some good things happening in London. In Wandsworth, Transport for London plans to reroute the A3 and A205 away from Wandsworth Town Centre and make the High Street accessible to cycles, buses, and pedestrians only.
A few years ago the new diagonal pedestrian crossing at Oxford Circus was introduced (intersection of Oxford Street and Regent Street) so that pedestrians have complete priority at regular intervals. This should be rolled out across London’s main intersections.
More traffic police
Cars, vans and lorries breaking the traffic laws are a major threat to pedestrians. Any strategic plan to make London more pedestrian friendly needs a clampdown on road traffic offences: driving through red lights, speeding, driving down the wrong side of the road to leapfrog traffic jams, driving the wrong way down one way streets.
We need to fund traffic police properly, so that offenders are punished and drivers know their chances of being caught are high. The deterrent effect of a highly visible police presence would make London far more pedestrian-friendly.
London’s most dangerous junctions for pedestrians
Oxford Street is particularly hostile to pedestrians. The intersections with Davis Street, Duke Street, and Holles Street have been highlighted in a recent survey as some of the most dangerous accident black-spots in the country for pedestrians.
At the very least, we need a 20mph speed restriction along Oxford Street and the roads leading up to it. Better still would be the complete pedestrianization of Oxford Street, as advocated by Christian Wolmar, one of the Labour candidates for London Mayor.
Zebra crossings in London
Part of the problem with zebra crossings is that many pedestrians don’t know how to use them safely. They walk across the road without warning, giving motorists no time to stop. Equally, many motorists ignore pedestrians who are clearly waiting to cross. One of the most dangerous zebra crossings in London is the famous Abbey Road crossing outside Abbey Road studios where the Beetles recorded some of their songs. We need to replace all zebra crossings with proper traffic light crossings, where is there no ambiguity.
The rise of pedestrians immersed in their smart phones, texting, and wearing headphones makes zebra crossings doubly hazardous.
Traffic light pedestrian crossings
Motorists pay more attention to red lights, so these crossings are much safer for pedestrians. The countdown clock for pedestrians is a good development, but the time it takes for the lights to change in favour of pedestrians after pushing the button is not so good. 20 seconds from pushing the button to the green man showing would be ideal, but too many crossings make pedestrians wait for over 1 or even 2 minutes.
The approach to pedestrian crossings should also have several metres of increased friction on the road surface to enhance braking ability, and as an audible warning to drivers that a pedestrian crossing is imminent.
There’s a new SCOOT system which has been trialed outside Tooting Bec tube station and Balham tube station. It’s a hi-tech pedestrian crossing system: Pedestrian Split Cycle Optimization Technology (SCOOT) which detects the build-up of pedestrians waiting to cross and changes the lights accordingly.
There used to be more pedestrian crossings which bleeped when it was time for pedestrians to cross, but the bleep has been removed from many crossings for some mysterious reason. The bleep was handy to alert pedestrians when the traffic lights changed in their favour, and particularly helped blind people. Does anyone know why the bleep has been removed?
20mph speed limit in central London
Imagine how many pedestrian lives would be saved by this simple measure. Collisions with pedestrians at 20mph result in much less serious injury than collisions at 30mph, but this proposal has met with great opposition from motoring lobby groups. It’s time for government to take the lead and change the culture.
But for this to work it needs to be policed with speed cameras and traffic police.
Reduce air pollution
Boris Johnson has taken his eye off the ball when it comes to reducing air pollution in London. Cuts in government funding for monitoring air pollution levels are a major backward step too.
Walking is a healthy option, but it would be healthier still if we could breathe clean air. An obvious first step is to phase out diesel engines to reduce nitrogen dioxide and particulate levels.
More extensive government subsidies for hybrid vehicles and electric vehicles would be a bold step forward. Electric vehicle recharging points are a rare sight in London (I saw one in Highbury Crescent near the swimming pool on my way to one of my personal training clients in Highbury Fields, but that’s the last one I’ve seen for a while).
Britain is still a car-addicted country, and London in particular. Contrast this with other European cities like Amsterdam and Munich which have a much more mature attitude towards transport, putting cyclists and pedestrians first in many segments of these cities.
There’s a huge bias in favour of motorists. Just look at the lenient sentences for motorists causing death to pedestrians and cyclists by dangerous driving, remember the popularity of the TV programme Top Gear, and count how many car ads there are on TV every night. It was good to see an ad for Halfords cycles a few weeks ago, but this is the exception.
We need government-led initiatives to create a cultural shift to put people’s health first.
Fewer roads for cars, more pedestrian-only spaces
We need to stop building new roads for cars. It will only encourage more cars onto the road, which is the last thing London needs. We could follow the example of NYC which pedestrianized parts of Broadway, which led to a boost for the local economy, reduced accidents, and got people more active.
Turkey’s capital Istanbul took the bold step of making the Historic Peninsula pedestrian-only. There was a surge of economic activity in the local shops, bars, cafe’s and restaurants. Air pollution in that section of the city plummeted, and physical activity rose.
Here in London we have some great pedestrian-only spaces: Granary Square near Kings Cross, the area outside Kings Cross station itself, Duke of York Square on the Kings Road, to name just three. We need many more pedestrian squares, so we’re more on a par with cities like Munich, Seville, Florence, Amsterdam, Rome and Paris.
Better pavements and street signage
During the last tube strike, I walked around London to my personal training clients, and noticed that many roads have no road name signs. Better signage would make London more pedestrian-friendly, and encourage walking in parts of London you might be less familiar with.
Another thing I noticed was how many broken and uneven paving stones there are, and trip hazards like this are a big disincentive for elderly and disabled people to walk around London.
Pedestrian bridges across the Thames
Rather than the monstrously expensive Garden Bridge, far better to have a larger number of simpler and more functional bridges for pedestrians and cyclists (no motor vehicles) across the Thames. The Millennium Bridge which connects St Paul’s on the north side of the river with Tate Modern on the south bank is a great example. More of this would make London so much more pedestrian friendly.
Walking boosts mental health
It’s better for your mental health to walk or cycle to work than to drive. You’re in the open air, see more nature (particularly when walking) and you don’t get caught up in traffic jams (particularly when walking).
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and author of the Fitness4London blog.