Bill Bryson OBE, a lover of many things British, returned to live in the USA for a while in the late 1990s. He wrote a series of ironic sketches about his neighbourhood in New England. A passage from one of these has stuck in my memory for more than 20 years ...
"An acquaintance of ours was complaining the other day about the difficulty of finding a place to park outside the local gymnasium. She goes there several times a week to walk on the treadmill. The gymnasium is, at most, a six-minute walk from her front door. I asked her why she didn't walk to the gym and do six minutes less on the treadmill.
"She looked at me as if I were tragically simple-minded and said, 'But I have a programme for the treadmill. It records my distance and speed, and I can adjust it for degree of difficulty.' It had not occurred to me how thoughtlessly deficient nature is in this regard."
He goes on to describe how little is spent on facilities for pedestrians in the United States. He gives an example from a family trip driving across Maine. They had stopped for coffee and he had spotted a bookshop across the street.
"Although the bookshop was no more than 50 or 60 feet away, I discovered that there was no way to get there on foot. There was a traffic crossing for cars, but no provision for pedestrians and no way to cross without digging through three lanes of swiftly turning traffic. I had to get in the car and drive across. At the time it seemed ridiculous and exasperating, but afterwards I realized that I was probably the only person ever even to have entertained the notion of negotiating that intersection on foot."
I have personally had a similar experience, not only in the outer suburbs of Philadelphia, but also on many occasions attempting to get from my home town of Faringdon, Oxfordshire to Fernham. Both on foot and on a bicycle. Imagine attempting that crossing using a mobility device! I've had a few narrow misses but there have been pedestrians who have been less fortunate.
Trouble is, there really is no other sensible way for Active Travellers to get from Faringdon to the villages and towns to the South, including Swindon.
And so we are forced into cars when a short healthy journey could absolutely be possible.
A definition of Active Travel (AT)
Here goes with a personal attempt to define AT:
Any form of travel that requires some degree of self-propulsion, including wheelchair-use, walking and cycling, and not excluding devices that provide some carbon-neutral form of assistance.
My skimpy definition is a precursor to working through more detail of the benefits, together with the components of any plan needed to designate, upgrade or extend the transport infrastructure of our County and of our town.
First the benefits
Think of AT as a vaccine against poor health, climate change and environmental ills ...
The picture above summarises the benefits that accrue to the community from pursuing a vigorous Active Travel policy. These have been assembled from wide-ranging sources and consolidated by Robin Tucker, a Cycling UK Trustee.
The importance of raising these now is that there is a County Council election in Oxfordshire in a few days' time, on Thursday the 6th of May.
I shared in a previous blog how a significant portion of the local County Councillor's responsibility is for Public transport, road works, parking, footpaths, street lighting, pothole repairs and the Environment. These are all essential building blocks for the Active Travel network that will be the significant part of delivering the benefits in the picture above.
Believe it or not, this is not just something I made up. There is a fair old bit of academic thought and research about it and how it can help meet the challenges of the modern world.
Three compelling events have occurred over recent decades that make this particularly relevant now:
There are many others but this triptych sheds a shining light on the opportunity to rethink town and city planning in 2021. Many of the old ways such as bisecting cities with dual carriageways and expediting polluting and expensive trunk road traffic through towns are no longer compelling. In fact, they have become antisocial and the community at large is rapidly gaining an awareness of this.
At the risk of misappropriating what has recently become a cliche, we are currently caught in a perfect storm that is propelling us to view our future differently from what has been seen as best practice in the past.
Re-enter the 15-minute neighbourhood
This is not a new concept, just a fresh encapsulation of what seemed like common sense in the past.
Essentially, it is a neighbourhood in which the majority of the residents' needs are met within a 15-minute "bubble" without using a car or van. The needs would vary depending on the requirements of a specific community but are likely to include Employment, Healthcare, Education, Sport/Leisure, Groceries, Social Interaction and Entertainment.
It would be superb if interested readers would contribute their own views on essential needs. Comments on this blog would be amazing but a tweet to @mark4faringdon would be just as good.
I'll finish off this episode (wouldn't want readers to spend more than 15 minutes reading it, would I) with a plea:
Planners: Please consider Active Travel needs before approving development plans.
Coming soon: The conditions required for a 15-minute neighbourhood/community/town/suburb; how to improve a current neighbourhood; how did we drift so far from this?; devices, including funding, for making this happen; electronically-assisted self-propelled devices.
Imagine that you live in a medium-sized market town. Perhaps there are 9,000-12,000 inhabitants. That means there is a high probability that there are around 6,500-7,000 fossil-fuel-burning vehicles chuffing around in an area of roughly 1.5 square miles.
OK, you'll point out, but they aren't all on the road at once. True enough, but perversely there will be more gas-guzzlers in rural towns than in major urban conurbations. Especially if they are affluent.
And you thought you's escaped the big smoke to live in a bucolic paradise.
There is another way.
The average town of this size will take 20-25 minutes for an average walker to traverse from one extremity to the other. That means 10-15 minutes to walk from an extremity to the centre. If you use a bicycle, that will come down to roughly a third of that for an unfit cyclist.
So we're talking about less than 7 minutes to get anywhere in the town and 3-4 minutes to get to the centre. If you drove it would take a minute or two to park the car and you'd be missing out on the sociability and health benefits of being out there in the open.
For wheelchair users the latent time and effort to get the chair in and out of a vehicle at either end would be pretty off-putting, too. So the benefits of being out and about in the fresh air are lost to many people who most deserve them.
Confirmed car addicts will point at horrible road surfaces and unsafe routes. They will have a point.
Which is why we have to start now to correct those things. It doesn't have to be like that. If we have the will we can make it happen and turn our towns into healthier and nicer places in which to live.
Coming next: How we can achieve this with the 15-minute rule in town planning ...
Further reading material for those people who think I've made it all up on my own ...
Other (benefits etc.)