July 2010:

The Mayor has declared his intention to make 2011 the ‘year of walking’

Really? Has he bothered to tell anybody? No sign of 2011 being Year Of Walking on the TfL website. We’re almost a month into 2011 – has anybody seen the Mayor in those outer London suburbs that he claims to care so much about, pounding the pavements and encouraging people out of their cars?

What, then, is Boris Johnson’s opinion on the promotion of walking as a sustainable transport mode and contributor to  health and well-being? Let’s see what he once had to say on the subject in his chickenfeed column:

Just as I was cramming my mouth with another obesity-enhancing cheese ‘n’ mesquita-flavour kettle chip, preparatory to washing it down with a draught of life-giving milk chocolate, the phone rang.

Whoaah! said my mole on the House of Commons health select committee. What are you writing about for your Telegraph column? I’m doing an elegy for Tracey Emin’s bed, I said, crunching vigorously, and I meant it, since I am full of admiration for Charles Saatchi and what he has done for BritArt.

Too bad, said my source. It’ll have to wait. We’ve got some fantastic stuff here from these health-conscious MPs. And, boy, was he right. There used to be a saying that no politician ever attacked motherhood and apple pie. All that is over, my friends. There is a new threat to our little ones. Its name is apple pie, and it is making them less little all the time. With every groaning axle on our blimp-like people carriers, with every squeak of the midnight fridge, with every pop of our collar buttons, the nation is getting fatter and fatter, says the health select committee – and the Government is doing nothing about it.

How long can this complacency continue? ask the MPs, and they set out a series of demands. Vending machines are being used by schools to boost their budgets by £10 million. They must be scrapped, say the vigilant MPs. Planning policies must be changed so that people can get to shops on foot or by bike, say the MPs – so presumably we must stand by for more government-inspired attacks on the car. Women are doing only 25 per cent of the recommended weekly quota of exercise, complain the MPs; so with any luck we can expect John Prescott, or some other lean and limber Labour minister, to lead the women of Britain in physical jerks.

Most shocking of all, ministers “have spent 10 years failing to achieve a walking strategy”. That, say, the MPs, is “scandalous”. Ten years! It’s far longer than that! I would say that human civilization has been deprived of a walking strategy for 40,000 years. No, I would go further. As a species, we have been without a proper walking strategy ever since Australopithecus Africanus (or was it Homo Erectus?) first hauled himself upright.

I don’t mean to be unkind to my fellow MPs, who have doubtless sat for ages devising this report – only breaking off for refreshment at the Commons heavily subsidised and choctastic canteen – but what in the name of all that’s sacred are we supposed to achieve with a “national walking strategy”? Who is going to propound this miracle method of locomotion, called putting one foot in front of the other – and who is going to pay for him or her, not to mention his car, pension and NI contributions?

I know I have touched on this theme before, and I return to it only because we seem genuinely on the verge of a kind of madness. Yes, as the committee rightly says, we do all eat far too much, and yes, it does indeed involve us all, since, as Derek Wanless pointed out in his NHS forecasts, the cost of treating obesity-related conditions will rise to £30 billion per year. That is 9p on income tax, enough to make anyone sit up, no matter how big his stomach.

But we do not eat too much because the Government somehow encourages us to do so. We are not a nation of fatties (and we are, amazingly, even fatter than the Americans) because of some failure of public policy. People may eat too much when they are in some way unhappy, in an act that is partly consolatory and partly self-destructive. It may be that women are so bombarded with images of perfect womanhood that they get down in the dumps and binge in a kind of mutiny. Maybe we all eat too much because we are spiritually poor, and seek the easy gratification of food.

What do I know? Speaking for myself, I would say a lot of us also eat too much because we are perfectly happy, but also really rather greedy. So before we employthousands of walking experts in the NHS, and before we roll out some vast new anti-obesity strategy, let us get some things straight. This is not a disease. Any talk of “pandemics” or “cures” is pure cant. This is a phenomenon entirely caused by personal volition.

The committee says: “Individuals cannot solve the problem as ministers seem to suppose.” But if individuals cannot solve the problem, then no one can solve the problem; because there is absolutely no one, apart from yourself, who can prevent you, in the middle of the night, from sneaking down to tidy up the edges of that hunk of cheese at the back of the fridge.

The more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become, and the more people will indeed feel that they are the “victims” of an affliction, when it is nothing but their own fat fault. The more the state prescribes the diet of children, the more it takes away responsibility from parents, and the less chance there is of genuinely persuading a child to cut down on Pringles or play more football.

Rather than introducing more NHS-funded “walking strategies”, it would be far better if ministers launched a blistering attack on the compensation culture that is so inimical to sport in schools; and it would be better still if the Government did something to arrest the sale of school playing fields, which has been accelerating with almost every year since Labour came to power.

Instead of whimpering about obesity, it would also be a good thing if we reclaimed the word fat. What’s wrong with it? Sometimes people call me fat. It stings. It works. And rather than engage in this pointless assault on apple pie, politicians might also speak up for motherhood. Not only are we having too few children, but motherhood, in all its aspects, is a very good way of losing weight.

Boris Johnson’s attitude, then, is that people don’t walk because they’re fat and lazy, not because footpaths and roads are badly-maintained, configured to favour traffic rather than pedestrians or because they drive everywhere and have no idea of local walking routes.

In 2009, I attended a seminar at City Hall entitled The Economic Impact Of Traffic Signals. This featured presentations, using sophisticated computer-modelling, of the economic effects of traffic lights in different scenarios. However, not one of the presentations factored in pedestrian movements, the implication being that time is money (in the case of road traffic), but the time of pedestrians is worthless.

Transport planners like to lump together walking and cycling, as if the two modes are interchangeable. Walking, however, always seems to draw the short straw.

TfL used to produce an online newsletter called Walking Matters. The Walking publications on TfL’s website now stop at 2008 – the year Boris Johnson was elected. If you click on the link for Smart Moves magazine – your first stop for all you need to know about Transport for London’s walking and cycling projects, you are taken to the Cycling page.  In any case, publication of this online magazine ceased in February 2010.

The publications Walking Plan For London and Improving Walkability date from 2004 and 2005 – before Boris Johnson’s tenure as Mayor.

In 2000, London hosted a Walk21 conference to exchange information and best practice on walking strategies. As one of  the speakers said:

Walking is a means of transport (the hidden mode of transport) Walking is also an indicator of the success and sustainability of a city. A city that tourists want to walk around, where children walk to school, where the shopping streets are crammed with people is a city that is doing well. But walking is so natural and normal that it is easily forgotten in policy making.

The vast majority of the increase in the 2009/2010 GLA Group Environment budget was swallowed up by the Mayor’s cycle hire scheme, eating up more than half of the Environment budget:

The GLA group environment spend for 2009/10 has increased by £64 million compared to 2008/09 but programmes designed to combat climate change have increased by less than £1 million. Of the £64 million increase, £52 million will be spent on start up costs for the new cycle hire scheme.

An example of one of these environment programmes is the TfL cycling programme. It has a budget of £111 million for 2009/10 and makes up over 50 per cent of the total GLA group environment budget. Within this programme, £52 million is for the Mayor’s new cycle hire scheme. Despite TfL’s current plan to launch the scheme in less than a year, it is still working on the programme’s expected environmental outcomes.

Boris Johnson said in his transport manifesto that the cycle hire scheme would provide ‘a genuinely sustainable alternative to the car and encourage more Londoners to cycle’. Market research for TfL suggests that less than 7 per cent of cycle hire scheme users will come from people who previously would have used a car. The research indicates that 39 per cent of cycle hire scheme users are likely to be people who previously walked, 30 per cent from underground users and 24 per cent from bus users. These figures indicate that the scheme is only likely to have a minimal effect on car usage and as a result CO2 emission and air pollution levels.

In fact, fewer than 1% of current users of the cycle hire scheme are using it instead of driving.

While the Mayor continues to pour seemingly unlimited amounts of cash into his cycle hire scheme and Cycle Superhighways, walking languishes as a mode to be made fun of, as Boris Johnson stuffs his face with crisps and contemplates increasing the population (again).

EDIT: The London Assembly produced their own report on walking in London, Walk This Way, in October last year. The Mayor has evidently been too busy guzzling savoury snacks to respond.

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