The Commodification of Walking

Like most things, it’s happened insidiously. Well, how else would we have got to the situation where to go out for a walk requires equipment (the right shoes, the right gear, and of course, the ubiquitous plastic bottle of water).  Is it because walking is now mainly viewed as an exercise rather than a form of transport?

Money is not put into improving the quality of pavements, into public seating or even pocket parks so that when we walk into town it’s a pleasurable experience.  Instead, money is funnelled through ‘Sports & Recreation Partnerships’ to support walking programmes, or local authorities build ‘walking tracks’.

How did that happen – that walking as transport has been engineered out of our lives?  One of the significant and most joyous milestones in our children’s lives (or those of our nephews or nieces) is when they take their first steps.  Toddling, then walking, they grasp hold of life and begin their long march towards independence.

Yet somewhere along that process we send out messages that, actually, walking is not that normal after all.  It’s not normal to walk to school.  It’s not normal to walk over to your friend’s house.  It’s not normal to walk into town.  Driving (or being driven) becomes their new norm.  And soon they (and we) become obese.  So to tackle this problem, local authorities are encouraged to build facilities and develop programmes to encourage people to exercise, with walking tracks that they can drive to…

I live in a town that has a beautiful river walk and, as a bonus just a little further on, a fantastic amenity of a horse racing track, which people use as a walking track when there is no racing (90% of the time).  But we now also have, about 1 km away, a new  walking/cycling circuit – with car parking.  No cycle routes to school.  No Safe Routes to school.  But a place you can drive to where you and your child can walk and cycle safely…  The commodification of walking.

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A Weighty Issue

I attended an interesting – if scary – presentation by Professor Donal O’Shea the other evening.  He’s the Endocrinologist in charge of the Weight Management Clinic in Loughlinstown Hospital, Dublin so he’s an important person to listen to regarding the health of our communities generally, and specifically of our children.  Fat is a huge part of our present lives, and an obese part of our future.  Yet the accompanying presentation was from a dietician…

Think about that.  A presentation by the country’s specialist in obesity is accompanied by a presentation by a food specialist.  Portion control, fat intake, food types, food pyramids etc etc etc.  Is this because they are focusing on the 25% of our children who are overweight or obese?  Perhaps.  Certainly his presentation on how research is pointing to the fact that certain genetic markers are ‘turned off’ when children become obese and so their ability to fight certain cancers etc are significantly lowered, was shocking.  So children who are overweight can’t just gain control of their lives and weight when they become independent adults and everything is OK.  It apparently just doesn’t work like that.

But what fascinated me is the implications of the converse of that statistic on overweight and obesity in children.  So 75% of our children are not overweight.  BUT 70% of those children do not get sufficient exercise to maintain good body weight as they get older.  Now that is the really horrifying statistic, because it means that more of them will be moving into that overweight/obese cohort if we don’t act now.

So why does the main focus of the answer to this weight crisis lie in food and dieticians?  Is it because obesity is undoubtedly a health issue, thus being addressed by the lovely Professor O’Shea? (Who told a lovely story about his redoubtable teenage daughter, who is not a young woman to be messed with as the implications for your mobile phone are not good!)  The clinicians then pull in other health professionals in their hospital settings, like dieticians etc.  and suddenly the focus is on carbohydrates and roughage and pyramids and brightly coloured fruit and smiley faces on sandwich boxes and… and… and…

But the fact remains that as long as children eat a fairly balanced diet, if they live active lives they will not become overweight.

You know where I’m going with this…  it’s just not rocket science.  How many of those middle class parents in the audience for Professor O’Shea allow their children to walk or cycle to school?  Our children are driven to the GAA pitch for their Saturday training, or driven to their dance class, or driven to their soccer practice.  And they are most certainly driven to school.  (We’ll leave the matter of rural Ireland and the fact that roads that were developed over the centuries for non-vehicular traffic are now accommodating cars and trucks travelling at 80 km/hr – and usually faster, and so clearly not amenable to cycling to school for young children).

I raised the ugly issue of class, which I think is more properly referred to as socio-economic groupings these days, because Professor O’Shea highlighted the fact that about 12% of very young children from disadvantaged communities are overweight or obese, while just 3% of young children from our more affluent communities are.  So yes, I accept that the issue is obviously not just about giving children the choice to live active lives.  But if our communities are designed, from a spatial and infrastructural perspective, as ‘healthy communities’ then surely the other issues can more easily be addressed?

[The fact that the Professor O’Shea’s presentation was held in a fancy hotel on the edge of town rather than a community centre in a targeted community is another issued to think about…]

The fact is that this problem, and it surely is a problem, will not be addressed if we look at all issues as separate, albeit connected, things.  We have to look at this from a holistic perspective of how do we develop healthy communities.  But let’s start by implementing 30 km/hr within our residential areas and 3 km of schools (thus a ‘cyclable’ distance for a 10 year old).  Radical?  Not really

The commodification of Walking

Image

Like most things, it’s happened insidiously. Well, how else would we have got to the situation where to go out for a walk requires equipment (the right shoes, the right gear, and of course, the ubiquitous plastic bottle of water).  Is it because walking is now mainly viewed as an exercise rather than a form of transport?

 Money is not put into improving the quality of pavements, into public seating or even pocket parks so that when we walk into town it’s a pleasurable experience.  Instead, money is funnelled through ‘Sports & Recreation Partnerships’ to support walking programmes, or local authorities build ‘walking tracks’. 

 How did that happen – that walking as transport has been engineered out of our lives?  One of the significant and most joyous milestones in our children’s lives (or those of our nephews or nieces) is when they take their first steps.  Toddling, then walking, they grasp hold of life and begin their long march towards independence. 

 Yet somewhere along that process we send out messages that, actually, walking is not that normal after all.  It’s not normal to walk to school.  It’s not normal to walk over to your friend’s house.  It’s not normal to walk into town.  Driving (or being driven) becomes their new norm.  And soon they (and we) become obese.  So to tackle this problem, local authorities are encouraged to build facilities and develop programmes to encourage people to exercise, with walking tracks that they can drive to…

 I live in a town that has a beautiful river walk and, as a bonus just a little further on, a fantastic amenity of a horse racing track, which people use as a walking track when there is no racing (90% of the time).  But we now also have, about 1 km away, a new  walking/cycling circuit – with car parking.  No cycle routes to school.  No Safe Routes to school.  But a place you can drive to where you and your child can walk and cycle safely…  The commodification of walking.

Building Sustainable Communities & Protecting our Heritage

Global warming, sustainability, environment, built heritage, healthy communities, natural heritage, climate change, protection, conservation, change, children playing in the streets, cycling to school… so many issues, so many linkages. 

One easy thing that we can all do to work towards more sustainable, healthy communities is to cycle or walk more.  The problem is that our new found passion for walking and cycling usually means getting in the car to drive somewhere to start our walk or cycle.  When we start to walk instead of driving short distances1 we start to look in detail at the fabric of the community in which we live: the quality of the pavements, the ability to cross roads safely (and in a timely fashion), the location of public seating, the absence of pocket parks in communities, the maintenance of green spaces, the quality of our built environment, dog fouling, traffic volume and speeds, connections to the wider community, the potential to enhance spots of beauty and interest, places for stopping and relaxing, and general accessibility for people using wheelchairs, pushing buggies, using canes.

These are the issues that need to be addressed in order to make our urban streets more ‘liveable’ and walkable.  Walking is great for our health and for the health of our communities – as well as being the best way to access our natural and built heritage.  When we become more aware of its fabric and detail, we have a vested interest in protecting and enhancing it.

But it’s even more than this. More specifically, it’s about our children, about the play that is simply a natural outcome of being part of a healthy, sustainable community.  It’s about how our public space – the roads, the pavements, parks, green spaces, that are held in common ownership for our common good, how this public space should be the type of space that supports and encourages our children – and us – to play safely.  We want communities where we can walk and cycle easily and safely, thus building communal ties with people that we see walking and cycling every day. We want children to play more, and more importantly we want them to integrate running around, walking and cycling around, into their daily lives so they don’t see play or exercise as another task. 

What’s the common refrain of young children – Mum! Can I go out and play??

They don’t say… Mum, can you stop what you’re doing and put us all into the car and drive down to the park where you can stand and watch us while we ‘play’…

We want them to be able to cycle to school, to cycle to see their friends, to build independence in safe communities where more people are walking and cycling.  So we have to be much more courageous and creative about the types of places we live, about our communities and neighbourhoods.

So what do towns and communities look like where children can go out to play and cycle to school, where it is a pleasure for us to cycle to work, or to walk to the shops or to meet friends?  It’s where communities work with the planners and engineers to develop Home Zones, Liveable Streets, where they put children and adults before… the car.  Where a speed limit of 20 mph in residential areas is the norm,  where cycling paths are the norm and are well-built so as to facilitate the cyclist and not as an add-on to a fast road.

By integrating walking and cycling into our daily lives we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, save money, and create vibrant, sustainable, healthy communities where we value our heritage and that are a joy to live in.  Simply by walking and cycling rather than driving.

  1. 1.       Between workers and students, around 400,000 people travel 4 kilometers or less to work or school or college by car every day distances that could easily be cycled or walked. Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport.  ‘Sustainable Transport’

And I Would Walk 10,000 Steps…

… with apologies to the Proclaimers, I would like to acknowledge the work of Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke and others who suggest that 10,000 steps is what you need to do to be ‘active’.  That’s hard work!!

I recently recruited the assistance of my 8-year old daughter, Niamh, and to be honest while she’s tough it’s hard to get to the magic 10,000!  My friends are astonished that I’m not hitting the ‘active’ benchmark as I do a lot of the things you should do to live an active lifestyle:  I choose to live about 1km from town so I could walk or cycle there easily.  I am always walking around the place – and yet my pedometer shows a stubborn 5 – 6,500 step profile.  ‘Low Active’.  Damned by faint praise.  I will write more on this later (it’s consuming me at the moment!), but it’s interesting to highlight just how active we need to be to be fit.

I’ll leave you with the stats:

What Should Your Step Count Goal Be?

Dr. Catrine Tudor-Locke recommends the following based on research:
Classification of pedometer-determined physical activity in healthy adults:
1) Under 5000 steps/day may be used as a “sedentary lifestyle index”
2) 5,000-7,499 steps/day is typical of daily activity excluding sports/exercise and might be considered “low active.”
3) 7,500-9,999 likely includes some exercise or walking (and/or a job that requires more walking) and might be considered “somewhat active.”
4) 10,000 steps/day indicates the point that should be used to classify individuals as “active”.
5) Individuals who take more than 12,500 steps/day are likely to be classified as “highly active”.

Thinking about the 1/5 who NEVER exercise….

Had an interesting meeting with Irish Heart Foundation person yesterday.  We chatted about the 1/5 of people who never exercise and the 3/5 who don’t do enough exercise to maintain fitness, and it made me think about the amount of money that’s spent on trying to create the programmes to entice people to exercise more – the dedicated cycle paths, the green gyms, the Slí routes, the mountain trails. 

If a cost/benefit analysis was done, would it show that the 1/5 of the population who exercise to the required level for their age would do so whatever the infrastructure that was put in place?  And that the rest of us – the 4/5 that either simply don’t exercise, or don’t do it enough to be fit – need a more integrated approach to creating simply healthier communities.  We need, quite simply, to normalise walking.

I read a great comment earlier this week (was it in the Irish Times?) about how strange it is that the closure of a car dealership would make frontpage news.  It says so much about how we view the health of the economy that this is an indicator of decline – yet the car is one of the biggest contributors to our carbon emissions and at the same time the biggest factor in our declining health.  That’s a bald statement to make, but think about how many children rarely walk further than from their front door to the car?  And from the car (parked as close to the school as possible…) to the school yard.  And back to the car and then home to play video games.  In some ways, that’s a cheap shot at kids as many of them are active – just not enough.  And the same goes for adults.

There are so many cheap ways we can make our communities healther – by making it safer to walk.  It’s a constant refrain – oh, its too dangerous for the kids to walk to…  So let’s slow the cars down.  At entrances to carparks and laneways, make it clear (road markings, signs, driver education) that pedestrians and cyclists have priority in crossing.  Do not allow cars to park on pavements – it makes it dangerous for people with mobility issues and distracts from the pleasure of walking if we have to negotiate parked cars as well as the myriad of other street furniture that clutters our way.

The question is, would the 4/5 of the population who don’t exercise (at all/enough) walk more if pavements and public spaces were prioritised over roads and cars and it became a pleasure to walk to school to drop off the children, to the post office, to visit friends? It’s a question worth asking.

‘Normalising’ Multi-modal Travel

I love that term.  Multi-modal travel.  Such a fancy way of talking about ways of getting around other than just driving.  And ‘normalising’  (my thanks to Dr. Jacky Jones, who writes in the Irish Times, for alerting me to that term) walking and cycling.  Who would have thought we’d have to talk about making walking seem normal.  When you think about the joy and delight when our children (nieces, nephews, grandchildren etc) take their first steps, and yet a few short years later we’re suppressing that instinct to walk by driving them everywhere.  And giving them the habit of being driven everywhere!

So it wasn’t with any joy that I expressed my frustration at the decision of Sligo County Council to spend € 243,950 for a scheme under the Smarter Travel Scheme.  Of course, anything that makes cycling safer is a bonus. But the aim of Smarter Travel is to facilitate getting each of us to shift our commute to walking, cycling or public transport. Large projects like this are great for tourism, and for people who enjoy cycling at the weekend, but how many more children will be cycling to school because of the project?

They want us to change our current sedentary lifestyles and look at cycling or walking instead of driving everywhere but this project doesn’t change anything to make it safer for the 20,000 people who live in Sligo Town.  The majority of Sligo residents are within a 20 minute walk or 10 minutes cycle to town and this grand engineering project will not make it safer or more pleasurable for the majority of them to cycle rather than drive to work. To ‘normalise’ walking and cycling as a mode of travel.

To make it worse, I believe this funding is in addition to the €281,741 that will be used to extend the Sligo City Smarter Travel Trail (who in Sligo knows the Doorley Park cycle path by this name??) by 5 km to and within the Cleveragh Retail Park. Many people drive their kids to this spot and then cycle.  This is a great way to get children to start cycling, but it’s not going to make it safer for them to cycle to school once they’ve built up their skills.

Wouldn’t it be great if at the end of spending over €500,000 on cycling in Sligo, that there was a linked up approach and that at least you could cycle and walk safely and with pleasure from Doorley Park, across town, to Strandhill. This would allow, for example, adults to commute by bike from Tonnaphuble to town, and children from that community to cycle safely to Mercy College.

A large number of smaller, cheaper initiatives across Sligo, such as 30kph zones & traffic calming, simplified junctions, contraflow provision for cyclists on one-way streets, could make a much bigger impact in terms of making Sligo a more walkable and cycle-friendly place to live.  Why not set an aim to have at least 15% of all commuting trips in Sligo made by bike or foot by 2015. That would be a key indicator of a healthier, more sustainable community – if this project would help to achieve I wouldn’t be questioning it. Otherwise it’s just a trophy for people who are already healthy and cycling, and the 1/2 million euro could be better targeted for the majority of people who never exercise but who may walk or cycle more if their communities were more walkable and cycle-friendly.  Or to use the jargon, if we normalised multi-modal travel…

Finding motivation for daily walk

I often feel somewhat hypocritical advocating walking as the best method for becoming healthier (as well as doing your bit for your community and environment) given I often find it hard to motivate myself!

It sometimes feels that the ‘messages’ set the bar so high – you know the ones:  stretch before and after (how long?? how do I know I’m doing it correctly?? what happens if I don’t!!), wear the right shoes, walk for a certain amount of time, at a certain pace…  it goes on.  So it was nice to come across the Mayo Clinics’s guide on walking.  The stretching can simply be walking slowly to start.  Then, when you start to feel your muscles just stop and gently stretch them! 

Now I admit, I don’t care if people are looking at me when I suddenly stop and stretch my neck, or gently roll my shoulders to stretch my back and all the attached bit.  It just feels good so I do it.

As for shoes, again I think we get too worked up (no pun intended…). Are they flat and comfortable? Then just start walking.

Let’s not make a big thing about it.  Just walk.

Pedestrians in Galway

I had a lovely – albeit it too short – visit to the City of the Tribes at the weekend and was struck by how poorly pedestrians are looked after once they leave the well planned areas of Eyre Square and Shop Street.  I was staying at Ciaran’s B&B (so convenient to everything and run by a gentle Mayo man) and rambled down to the streets away from town to the world of Lidl, Tesco and the cinema.  The latter trip iniated by a desire to get a last fix of Harry Potter with my Harry Potter-mad daughter…  But my goodness!  The pavements are unloved, and the opportunities for safe road crossing are few and far between.  And as for trying to negotiate your way when it comes to roundabouts is nothing short of a horror.

Time for pedestrians and cyclists to come together in Galway to work for a little more tlc on the streets.  Ask the planners to look at the whole concept of ‘Complete Streets‘.