Last November the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) advocated that people should stop using their cars whenever a journey can be done in under 20 minutes by walking or cycling, and that planners and other professionals need to do more to encourage this. Nothing new in that you may say – after all it would achieve all kinds of sustainable development goals, and promoting unpowered travel has been enshrined in planning policy since Noah was a lad. Without, it has to be admitted, doing much to halt its inexorable decline.
But this paper had a different purpose – to help fight off the silent epidemic of inactivity sweeping the country. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) taking 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week reduces your chances of getting all kinds of non-communicable diseases, from heart disease and cancer to depression, and more and more of us aren’t meeting the target.
In fact inactivity is now the fourth highest risk factor for global mortality, ahead of obesity but behind high blood pressure, tobacco use and high blood glucose. And the UK is one of the most inactive nations in the world. A recent paper in the Lancet put us as one of only four countries where more than half of all men and women do not get the required exercise, ranking equal worst alongside Saudi Arabia, Namibia and Argentina. Even the famously obese and couch-loving Americans do better than that. And around a third of all Dutch, Germans and French still walk or cycle to work. That is twice the British level.
But surely I’m doing enough, I thought. After all I’m a pretty active person. But when I came to look at it that wasn’t the case. Yes I have occasional bursts of lengthy moderate exercise – walking to Birmingham along the route of HS2 for example, or long walks for this blog – but in an average week I was way short of the target. I don’t travel to work anymore, as my “office” is only a hallway and one flight of stairs away from my living room, so I miss out on my daily 12 minutes each way walk across the park from the nearest free long stay car park. And my bike, which 25 years ago got me all round the London Borough where I then worked, languished in the garage with flat tyres and an urgent need for some routine maintenance.
And I was no better at doing strenuous exercise (of which the WHO says 75 minutes per week equates to the health value of 150 minutes of moderate exertion). I had got out of the habit of running regularly, something I used to enjoy whatever the weather, and hadn’t replaced it with anything else. So when my step-son pointed out that my belly was hanging over the waistband of my trousers rather more than he remembered it doing I thought it was clearly time for some action.
And so more or less since the NICE report came out I have been doing what they say and walking or cycling for all journeys under 20 minutes. Obviously the purpose of all this was for my health, but as a planner I was fascinated to discover whether it was an easy and pleasant experience, or whether there was something more than laziness and time pressure that had got me out of the habit.
I started with a quick win. Instead of driving to the supermarket and stocking up with a big shop I now walk down and bring back as much as I can carry. We live pretty near the centre of town, and it’s a pleasant 10 minute walk along our pedestrianised High Street to the door of Waitrose. Two robust shopping bags accommodate all we need for two or three days, which was about as often as we used to go anyway. So that was 40 minutes a week chalked up in pleasant largely traffic-free surroundings. And carrying the bags back can only help towards the two days a week of exercising major muscle groups which is also in the WHO guidelines.
It has also meant that I use the rest of the High Street more. If I need something I can often get it in one of the shops I pass on my way to the supermarket. I didn’t really think of this before. So this is one up for Planning. If Waitrose hadn’t been persuaded to locate their store in town then it might have been too far to walk, and the extra trade for other shops wouldn’t have been forthcoming.
But actually I was surprised to find how few journeys I could actually accomplish in 20 minutes, even by bike. If you live in a big city with everything on your doorstep things will be different, but my wife and I have chosen, for all kinds of quality of life reasons, to move to a small town in the heartland of the polycentric south east. This is a place where people work in one town, shop in a second, recreate in a third and live in a fourth, all of which may be not much more than 20 minutes apart by car, but certainly are by unpowered means. So I managed to cycle to the garden centre and deliver a few local Christmas cards. I also made two trips into Guildford (the next nearest town) by bike but found that it took more than 20 minutes. Oh – and I walked to the station a couple of times.
Six weeks in to it my average weekly workout from obeying the NICE directive is 55 minutes of walking and 20 minutes cycling a week. By counting the cycling as vigorous that gets me to about two thirds of the required level. If I add in the household tasks I’ve done like sweeping up leaves and clearing snow, and one long walk with some friends over Christmas then I get close to the 150 minutes a week. Which was a pleasant surprise to be quite honest.
But will I keep it up – and does the nature of the built environment encourage me to? Well the walking is fine. The centre of Godalming is a pleasant place to walk round – based on a historic street pattern from when walking was the norm, with most of the traffic diverted onto a relief road. The cycling is to be honest far less enjoyable. When I was in my twenties I was a very keen cyclist, thinking nothing of pedalling furiously around London along all the busiest roads. But somewhere in the intervening 25 years I’ve become far more aware of my own mortality. It might be lack of practice at defensive riding, but every time I have been out on my bike I seem to have had some kind of near miss, with a driver pulling out, carving me up or opening the door in front of me for example.
The intermittent segregated cycle path along the main road between Godalming and Guildford is better than nothing, but when it suddenly does one of its frequent vanishing acts the traffic hurtling by is not conducive to a relaxing ride. There is a traffic free off-road route available, but it would take about 30 minutes, and is only really useable in dry weather. I’m not sure whether the cycling will become a habit. But without it I wouldn’t get close to the 75 mins / 150 mins target. I just don’t conduct enough of my life within a 20 minute walk of home.
For me getting back to running regularly feels a more relaxed and enjoyable way of keeping active than dodging traffic on busy roads on my bike. Come the summer when off-road routes are more viable I hope I will feel differently, but not right now. And if this makes me reluctant to stick to cycling it is easy to understand why the vast majority of people don’t even appear to consider it.
Overcoming the epidemic of inactivity is yet another reason for creating walkable environments with everything we need within easy reach. And quite apart from encouraging us to be more active they are invariably more pleasant places to spend time in, which in the right circumstances gives them an economic advantage too. But, human nature being what it is, most of us will continue to exercise our freedom of choice, and take advantage of all the world has to offer, whether we can get there by walking and cycling in 20 minutes or not.