Sunday, August 09, 2009

Walking a fine line: A look at Victoria Walks

You may have noticed a new link added to the sidebar - Victoria Walks.

While I've previously posted on pedestrian issues, the emphasis has been on walking to access public transport and transfer between services.

However walking also needs to be regarded as a transport mode in its own right, and not just as a means of recreation or physical exercise. Walking even beats public transport for some trips. The distance where walking is faster ranges from about 1 to 5 kilometres, with higher figures in pedestrian-hostile locations, or where where transit has limited frequency, connectivity, directness and coverage.

How significant is walking as transport? The census question about transport asks about the journey to work. This is the very journey that people are least likely to walk and walking's modal share is low. Counting all trips would probably give a higher share for walking but it is still often dismissed as a 'minor access mode'.

What are the main threats to walking's attractiveness as transport? Key is bad urban and traffic system design, with examples being missing footpaths, absence of crossing facilities, buildings that don't address the street or have easy footpath access, long traffic light cycles or excessive use of roundabouts, blank walls facing footpaths and poor passive surveillance. The design of our suburbs, covering matters such as a permeable street grid, location of transit stops, and co-siting of activity centres around transport nodes are also important. The costs of designing new suburbs along these lines is negligible, and even retrofitting existing suburbs need not be expensive given the benefits. There are also social attitudes, for instance a perception of being unsafe when walking. Just as with public transport safety more people walking tends to create a virtuous spiral of 'safety in numbers'.

What is walking's political representation like? Drivers have the RACV. Cyclists have Bicycle Victoria. Public transport passengers have the PTUA. Even though there are more pedestrians than either drivers and public transport passengers, Victorian pedestrians have no organised lobby to advance their interests (whereas NSW has the Pedestrian Council).

As walking costs the user nothing, there is almost no 'walking industry' or 'vested interests'. For example, it requires no ailing car industry for governments to protect with tariffs, subsidies or loan guarantees. It involves no new trains, trams or buses. Plus there are no multimillion dollar franchises, operator contracts or powerful unions at stake. The upgrade of suburban streets to become walkable grids would generate jobs for road construction companies, but these firms could just as easily be building new roads, so these companies don't have a particular vested interest in pedestrian improvement projects either.

Does the lack of political representation for a particular transport mode automatically mean that nothing in that field gets done? Not necessarily. Though Perth's 'Friends of the Railways' were successful in getting the Fremantle line restored, and this fostered the biggest suburban rail revival of any Australian capital, it appears to have been academics and sympathetic governments who maintained the momemtum to complete a series of major projects including electrification, Joondalup, Thornlie and Mandurah. WA appears not to have a passenger lobby group as prominent as the PTUA in Melbourne (and those that are there appear to have been offshoots from a reasonaly strong environment movement, eg STCWA) who would have been expected to advocate such extensions.

The situation as regards walking in Melbourne is a little different. As mentioned above there is no prominent pedestrian lobby. University transport academics occupy high profiles in public debate but public transport and urban planning tend to be their favourite topics. Other matters such as walking and freight transport appears to be less advocated, or at least are less reported in the papers.

Is suburban walkability a significant part of state transport plans and budgets? When considering this allowance needs to be given for the involvement of both local and state governments. The various state transport plans have typically involved road and public transport infrastructure projects, with a swing towards the latter in the Victorian Transport Plan. Pedestrian access was not a major part of this plan, or of the debate that preceded it (about the Eddington report, tunnels and surging rail patronage). While there exists a Local Area Access Program that supports pedestrian access projects, its budget appears to reflect the extent to which walking is regarded as a serious transport mode.

The lack of a lobby and academics to lead debate, the relative absence of media on pedestrian access topics (outside the occasional article in the local paper) and the absence of a significant program to make existing suburbs walkable all indicate unmet needs. These only intensify when the social and fitness benefits of walking are added.

Stepping into this gap is the Victoria Walks website. This turns out to be a registered charity sponsored by VicHealth. VicHealth is a health promotion foundation established by parliament as part of the Tobacco Control Act (1987). Although funded by cigarette taxes, its health promotion goes well beyond the Quit Campaign to includes areas such as physical activity, which is where Walking School Buses and Victoria Walks come in.

To reflect its sponsor's aims, the motivation behind Victoria Walks appears to be the health benefits of walking. This is much like how cycling and cycle tracks is seen as a recreation as much as a transport mode. And some might see buses in some areas mainly as social welfare, since their ridership is predominantly 'captive passengers'. Which leaves cars, trucks and trains as the 'serious' transport modes deserving of 'real dollars' through various transport plans and administered by a dedicated department.

What is the content of Victoria Walks? There is one thing it isn't; it's not a simple exhortation for everyone to walk at least 30 minutes a day.

Instead it emphasises a 'bigger picture' or 'community engagement' model. If psychology can be said to emphasise the individual's mind and sociology society's values, Victoria Walks is clearly favours the social, the community and the 'active' (politically as much as physically).

Hence site readers are encouraged to do 'walking audits' of their neighbourhood and form 'walking action groups' to 'engage government'. There are many case studies from parts of Melbourne and around the world to open minds as to what can be done. And the achievements of Walking Action Groups, such as questions in parliament and replies from councils, are highlighted for further encouragement.

Although its excellent website contains much useful background information, Victoria Walks is not a lobby group in itself. After all its funding source effectively makes it an arm of government, and one area trying to lobby another part would look odd. Nevertheless it does engage in what I would term 'advocacy support'. They won't directly lobby or give specific advice but the website acts as an enabler, encourager and mouthpiece for others to do so.

Victoria Walks is an example of initiative on an aspect of transport coming from outside the department ostensibly responsible for it. The progress of it, and particularly any activity it spawns, will be well worth watching.

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Anonymous Tom said...

If there was a road blockading pedestrian action organisation then walking would get some media attention quite quickly. The attention might be a bit negative though.

1:13 pm  

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