Walk21 Conference – The Impact of Walkable Cities

“Public space is for living, doing business, and playing. Its value can’t be measured with economics or mathematics; it must be felt with the soul” – Enrique Penalosa, Mayor of Bogata

Early this October thousands of sustainable transport researchers, city planners, walking campaigners and advocates from around the world descended on Bogota, Colombia for the annual Walk21 conference. I joined them to find out more about walking’s place in the transport debates happening within our cities, and to help understand the ADAPT project’s place in these discussions.

As part of the conference poster session, I presented the main findings of our experiments on effective persuasive messaging for encouraging walking as a form of transportation. Amongst our main findings were that health-related arguments were most effective at persuading participants to walk more and convenience-related arguments were least persuasive. This was in part mediated by an individual’s personality. Agreeableness, a measure of a person’s propensity for pro-sociality and tendency to prioritise the needs of others, accounted for major differences in the way that people responded to arguments appealing to different values. Respondents scoring highly on agreeableness were more likely to be convinced by all walking arguments with the exception of convenience-related arguments, which they rated as significantly less persuasive than all other argument values.  We tentatively suggested that the findings could be used to inform future work on tailoring and personalisation of messaging within travel communications and behaviour change apps, and had some interesting discussions with attendees about how this work could be used for future interventions and campaigns.

Our work seemed to fit in well with the ethos of the conference, which seemed to emphasise the importance of both government and individual action to transform our most car-dependent cities. Bogota is a city that has undergone radical changes to its transportation systems over the past couple of decades. From the development of the TransMilenio bus network in 2000 offering 75% of the city’s population easy access to a fast and efficient public transport service, to the introduction of car-free days where the entirety of the city’s population forgoes their cars in a symbolic act against pollution, congestion, and traffic fatalities. Much of this change has been attributed to Bogota’s mayor, Enrique Penalosa, who’s vision of city improvement through an effective and socially equitable transport system is seen everywhere as you walk around the Colombian capital city. It was clear that walkability played a pivotal role in this vision.

Nowhere was this more evident than the weekly “Ciclovia”, where every Sunday and public holiday, 87 miles of public road is closed off within the city limits for use by cyclists and pedestrians only. This is where the conference began, as attendees were guided down the bustling “Carrera 7” in downtown Bogota without a car in sight. During Ciclovia, thousands of Bogatanos spill out onto the streets to shop, meet friends, watch street art performances, eat, drink and generally experience the city without the obstruction, noise and dangers of usual inner-city traffic. This was an apt demonstration of one of Mayor Penalosa’s guiding principles; that the impact of public space use extends far beyond economics, and that opening up public space to walking and cycling creates a sense of community and city-wide wellbeing that cannot be achieved by prioritising car use.

These themes were apparent throughout the following three days of talks, starting with Mayor Penalosa’s opening plenaries where he discussed his vision for a Bogota where city planning routinely considers the needs of its communities, and develops spaces and transport systems that open the city for all its inhabitants to access. There were talks from city planners showing how the modern city’s road networks can strangle communities and isolate entire neighbourhoods from the cities they inhabit. Notably, Ludo Campbell-Reid talked through transformations under way in Auckland, New Zealand, to improve walkability within the inner-city. In a country notoriously car dependent, where there are currently more cars registered than inhabitants, Ludo highlighted neighbourhoods where access to downtown areas (which were sometimes less than a mile away) were severely restricted by a highway system that prioritised road commuters from suburban neighbourhoods over inner-city commuters who could feasibly walk to downtown. The result was the degradation of inner-city neighbourhoods, an increase in urban sprawl as suburban neighbourhoods grew, and a downtown area overrun by cars that had become unfriendly towards pedestrians. Ludo showed how simple urban design changes such as reducing car flow into areas of downtown, converting existing road infrastructure in the inner-city into bike lanes and walkways and designing attractive pedestrian areas around the city’s existing amenities transformed both inner-city neighbourhoods and downtown areas from inaccessible gridlocked streets to areas that communities and businesses could thrive.

Similarly, Skye Duncan of NACTO’s Global Designing Streets Initiative demonstrated how handing over control of the street design to the communities that use them can drastically transform the ways in which cities take shape. In Addis Abada, Ethiopia, they gave residents the opportunity to redesign an intersection with staggeringly high rates of traffic related incidents. The intervention involved temporary chalk and paint restructuring of the existing infrastructure and allowed for extension of pedestrian areas, safe pedestrian crossings where none had previously existed and eventually extended to the closing of neighbouring streets for pedestrians only. Not only did the initiative have the desired impact of reducing traffic fatalities in the area, but also allowed for a new community area to flourish as they had developed a space where children could play, and adults could meet safely without disruption from traffic.

The talks and discussions at Walk21 have given us some new areas to focus on within the ADAPT project that we had not fully considered before. Particularly that one of the major benefits of encouraging walking within cities is the impact it has on community cohesion and citizen wellbeing. The impact of improving walkability goes beyond improving health, reducing cost and limiting pollution. The act of walking allows citizens to directly access shops, green spaces, community areas and come into direct contact with others during a regular journey that they may otherwise miss if travelling by car. While not always the quicker route, walking has the advantage of allowing an individual to connect to their surroundings in a way that no other form of transport does. This may be a greater selling point for encouraging walking than the often abstract and difficult to contextualise health, financial and environmental benefits that are often promoted as a reason to walk more. The sense of community and development of thriving neighbourhoods could be a big driver in efforts to take cities back from the car and this is something we are keen to explore more.

Sam Bennett

ADAPT Research Assistant