One of the most accessible forms of exercise is walking, and as a personal trainer with clients in London, I would love our city to be more pedestrian-friendly. However, the three main barriers are in my opinion the ludicrously high levels of air pollution, the sheer number of motor vehicles, and the pedestrian-hostile transport infrastructure of our city.
A good starting point for policy-makers is to emulate best practice from around the world, so I’ve researched some of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the world. Here are my findings:
One of the three biggest barriers to a pedestrian-friendly city is totally removed in this beautiful city: motor vehicles. Venice is totally car-free, and the only public transport is the canal boats and river taxis. The streets are too narrow for cars, and Venice has one of the most extensive car-free street networks of any city in the world. As a result, the air-pollution is very low, which makes Venice doubly healthy.
The no-go areas for cars and other motor vehicles are more numerous in Florence than most other cities in the world, particularly in the Centro Historico which is full of historic Renaissance architecture.
Pedestrians can move freely around this city, and enjoy the car-free squares and cobbled streets at their leisure. Highlights are the Boboli Gardens, Via dei Calzaiuoli, and Piazza della Signoria. You can get across the Arno River easily on foot , thanks to the six main bridges across this ancient capital of Tuscany.
New York City, USA
The publication America Walks ranks NYC number 1 in the States for pedestrian friendliness. Highlights include Times Square, which Mayor Bloomberg part-pedestrianized as part of his sustainability programme.
Neighbourhoods such as Little Italy and SoHo have also been part-pedestrianized, and more people are walking around the city instead of using cars.
Central Park is the gem in the middle of the city, and locals walk, skate, and cycle through the park in their thousands every day.
Portland, Oregon, USA
Portland has probably the most proactive city authorities when it comes to walking. The Pedestrian Advisory Committee constantly monitors walk-ability around the city, and puts pedestrians and cyclists above motor vehicles in their urban planning priorities.
Portland has a staggering 140 miles of interlinked walking paths through the city, which has had dramatic results for the health and wellbeing of the local population.
Boston, Massachusetts, USA
This coastal city is one of America’s oldest cities, and this combination of sea-front and historic architecture always encourages a move towards more pedestrian-friendly policymaking.
Haymarket and Chinatown boast pedestrian streets, and there is a pedestrian walkway called Harbourwalk which spans Chelsea Creek all the way to the Neponset River. Walkers and joggers can also enjoy the 4km Freedom Trail, totally free from cars, a haven for personal trainers and their clients.
The authorities have introduced pedestrian-friendly signage around the city, and lengthened the time for pedestrians to cross at pedestrian crossings.
Although London wouldn’t appear in any list of even the top 100 most pedestrian cities in the world, I’ve put it here as an aspiration for the future.
Some progress has been made in recent years. The section of Trafalgar Square in front of the National Gallery is now pedestrian-only. The pedestrian crossing at Oxford Circus now allows pedestrians to cross diagonally in addition to the existing crossings, which means that all traffic has to stop for the duration of the green man for pedestrians.
However, far more needs to be done. There are way too many cars, and thousands of these are on the road illegally. The more we know about nitrogen dioxide and particulates the stronger the case for ridding London of diesel vehicles. Air pollution is at record levels, and the worst in Europe. There are too few pedestrian crossings in some parts of London, and where there are crossings the time it takes from pressing the button to being able to walk across is too long in most cases.
We need more pedestrian-only bridges like the Millennium Bridge which spans the river from St Paul’s to the Tate Modern. The monstrously expensive Garden Bridge is a waste of money when compared to the number of more utilitarian pedestrian bridges that could be built for the same cost.
We need more pedestrian-only streets (starting with Oxford Street, which Christian Wolmar, a Labour candidate for London Mayor, has been advocating for years). We need more 20mph speed restrictions throughout the residential streets London, so that pedestrians can cross the road safely, and cyclists can travel at reduced risk.
The health benefits of walking are proven, yet London lags way behind most other world cities. As a personal trainer in London I think this is a real shame, but there will come a time (in the not too distant future I hope) when politicians start taking the nation’s health seriously.
Dominic Londesborough is a personal trainer in London and founder of Fitness Buddy, a free social network for Londoners.