Walking Is Climate Action

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CC BY 2.0. Ken Avidor

We are never going to switch to electric cars in time to make a difference. That's why we have to get out of our cars and walk.

Recently we reviewed the UK's Committee on Climate Change report calling for a net zero nation by 2050, and I had some reservations, complaining that they focused on switching the nation to electric cars while pretty much ignoring alternatives. I wrote that "they do mention that 'shifting to more sustainable modes of transport (walking and cycling) could be a cost-effective alternative to private car ownership depending on location,' but never mention building infrastructure to support that, to make it viable for almost every location."

This has been bothering me ever since, because it takes a lot of stuff to build an electric car, generating a lot of what I call upfront carbon emissions. And as I have been also saying forever, it is still a car, needing all that concrete infrastructure and parking. Those words "depending on location" let so many people off the hook. Then my favourite tweeter reminded me once again:

I have written before that bikes are climate action. I have also written that walking is transportation. But it is also true that walking is climate action.

In North America today, nobody takes walking seriously. There is the old joke that if you see someone walking in Houston, they are looking for their car. Nobody counts the walking as part of the trip; people have to walk to get to public transportation, and they have to walk to their cars, but that is considered secondary, ancillary to the main action. Given the number of driving trips that are under a mile, people may spend more time walking to their cars than they actually do driving.

Solvitur Ambulando: It Is Solved By Walking

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Crowded London sidewalks

Lloyd Alter/ Crowded London sidewalks/CC BY 2.0

Walking may not be the most efficient way to move a person (bikes probably are) but walking has significant advantages. We have written many posts about how walking is healthy and good for you, but as Melissa has summed it up, it also gets you from A to B.

Walking is not about gear or clothes or expertise; it’s easy, cheap, and exceedingly kind to the body. Walking for the sake of taking a walk is emotionally as well as physically pleasing; walking for the sake of getting somewhere is cheaper and easier on the planet than driving.

We talk about how important it is to make cities bike-friendly, but in fact, people walk vastly more than they bike, because they are often multi-modal, mixing it up with transit. We have noted before that even Americans walk. According to the Pedestrian and Vehicle Information Center,

...about 107.4 million Americans use walking as a regular mode of travel. This translates to approximately 51 percent of the traveling public. On average, these 107.4 million people used walking for transportation (as opposed to for recreation) three days per week....Walking trips also accounted for 4.9 percent of all trips to school and church and 11.4 percent of shopping and service trips.

But walking isn't seen as serious or proper transportation; like bicycles, many people think of it as exercise or recreation. As Colin Pooley of Lancaster University has noted,

Pedestrians suffer from being classed as “walkers” – those who walk for pleasure rather than as a means of transport. The cultural dominance and convenience of the motor vehicle has meant that urban space has been disproportionately allocated towards cars and away from pedestrians. When walking for anything other than recreation is increasingly seen as abnormal, cars will always win.

We have to stop the cars from winning all the time. We have to stop pretending that electric cars will save us, because they won't; they are going to take decades to get here and we do not have decades.

Lexington before and after

© John Massengale

What we have to do is everything we possibly can to encourage walking. That means making our streets more comfortable for walking, even if we have to take space back from parking and from roads and make our streets more like they were before, as John Massengale's fabulous photo of Lexington Avenue in New York shows.

vests on walkers

© Jonathan Fertig/ Do the bright thing

We have to stop criminalizing walking with stupid walking while texting laws, and hi-viz silliness, but instead, give the people who walk the highest priority.

credit: Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter

Housing in Vienna/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

We have to insist that all new residential development be built at a density where you can actually get somewhere, to a store or to good transit or to a doctor, by walking.

We have said so many times that walking is good for you. As Katherine has written,

Walking is a healthy, green way to transport oneself, but it requires time, which is at a premium nowadays. By making the time to walk, however, we create a healthier world filled with happier individuals.

But these days, most importantly, walking is climate action.