Walking and running to work
City centres have been revitalised as desirable places to live over the previous generation. This shift to urban living (and, as we write elsewhere), the density that comes with it) frees residents from long train or car commutes from the suburbs to their city centre workplaces and offers the possibility to take a brisk walk, run or cycle to the office. The demographic of these increased city populations tends to be young professionals, underpinned by growing student numbers.
Despite clear evidence of the benefits of active travel, this rise in young city centre workers has not yet translated into an increase in walking to work. In 2017, the National Travel Survey recorded 11% of all commuting trips in England were walked, a figure that has remained relatively unchanged since 2002, when 10% of commutes were walked. Although a few smaller British cities can boast walking rates of twice this level, this rather implies that by 2040 we can expect at most a further improvement of only one to two percentage points in this figure – unless radical changes are made in the attractiveness or feasibility of this option.
Figure 1: Modal split for commuting trips, England, 2017
Source: Walking and Cycling Statistics 2017
So much for walking: maybe the distances are too great. What about running to work instead? Statistics measuring running to work levels are sparse, with neither the census, nor the Active People survey by Sport England, nor the National Travel Survey asking the question. However, the proliferation of websites and blogs offering advice on run commuting indicates that there is an appetite for it. The International Run Commute Survey for 2014, the latest survey results available, found that the average run commute was between three and seven miles. One of the major barriers could be the lack of showers and changing facilities at the workplace – something that talent-hungry employers (and their office space providers) are starting to notice.
This trend has also prompted some interesting innovations: for example, Home Run offered runners the service of delivering their work bags to their door whilst they ran home from work. Home Run has since disbanded, but with the plethora of food delivery and other courier services, there is no shortage of other contenders who could diversify into a similar service.
Distance is likely to be the main consideration for commuters who might be musing over walking, running or cycling to work (we cover cycling elsewhere). Personal preference also comes in to play, with a keen walker happy to set an early alarm call to squeeze in an hour walk; and a cycling enthusiast plotting a non-direct route to the office to clock up training miles while avoiding traffic. But, according to the 2011 census data for England and Wales, 71% of all respondents who travelled to work on foot walked less than 2km.
Walking to work varies by city (Figure 2), these figures are not strictly comparable with those above. The greater the travel to work, the less likely an individual is to walk, but even among similar sized city local authorities, there are some variations. Manchester puts in a relatively impressive performance given its size, but still counts less than 1 in 20 of full time workers walking to work. Walking to work is however much higher for city centre populations than for suburbs, reflecting the fact that workplaces are typically concentrated in city centres.
Figure 2: Selected English local authorities, percentage of adults in full time work and aged 16-74 walking to work, 2011 (city council unless otherwise stated)
Source: 2011 Census, DfT
Growth in city centre populations and an increased emphasis on pedestrian friendly streetscapes (which would include the fact that more road space is being converted to cycling use) suggest that these numbers are likely to rise over the coming years.
However, we can’t be certain about this: elsewhere we argue that commuting distances are actually likely to increase as rail services improve. It doesn’t seem realistic to argue that a very significant increase in walking to work is likely in the next 20 years. But we wonder whether the longer distances involved in running, plus the tendency for employers to offer more fitness-friendly workplaces, might boost that form of healthy commuting rather more.