The Government is suddenly concerned about the obesity crisis, and is suggesting we all walk to work. "The idea is to get off the bus or the Tube a couple of stops early and walk," said Anne Milton, Public Health Minister and former nurse. In other words, take your medicine, it's good for you, and don't complain about the nasty taste. If you work in London, you work in a city where most of the public space is specifically set up to benefit the least healthy forms of transport and discourage walking. Since Boris was elected, TfL has been busy re-timing traffic lights and re-designing junctions to get as much traffic flowing as possible and getting pedestrians out of the goddarned way. The capital's pavements are often narrow and crowded, and you're walking next to noisy, fast-moving traffic - hardly a pleasant experience. As an additional disincentive, London is one of Europe's most polluted cities, as a result of a long-standing reluctance to tackle emissions standards and traffic levels. In fact, walking in London is often so unpleasant you'll be wanting a large cappucino and a doughnut to cheer yourself up when you arrive.
Walking is a fine thing, but I suspect the Government don't have much idea of the real world of commuting. Walking is slow. Walking for a mile or two will make your journey take considerably longer, and with a public transport system that's dogged by delays, many commuters can't afford the extra time. Also, while walking is better than sitting down, it's also not the best way to burn calories.
I wonder why Anne Milton isn't pushing cycling instead? Cycling is a lot quicker than walking, it's quicker than public transport for a lot of journeys, and will save you money, which walking won't in most cases. Cycling a 5-mile journey will burn a lot more calories than taking the tube for 4 miles and then walking the remainder. But once again, it's the conditions of the public realm that put people off. Roads are set up for motor vehicles, and cyclists and their safety is an afterthought, if it's thought of at all.
One of Cameron's big ideas was to set up a 'nudge' unit to try to make things like exercise and healthy eating an easy choice. The fact is that London, along with most other UK cities, is set up to 'nudge' people the other way. It's all very well for Anne Milton to say "Londoners need to take responsibility [for getting more excercise]". It's about time the Government took responsibility and started creating the conditions in which active travel becomes the default choice for shorter journeys. The economic benefits of a healthier population will far outweigh the costs of the infrastructure. It's been done in Holland, so it can be done here, given the political will.