Healthy Streets: something we can all agree on?

By Oly Shipp

In current times, we’d be hard pressed not to find ourselves privy to multiple divisive debates. In this country, the toxic legacy of the Brexit referendum can appear to have left us with a broken society. We struggle to enter civil conversations about issues that affect us all, such as how to respond to the great existential issue of our time: the climate emergency. We might accept the scientific consensus that man-made climate change is real and urgent, but what we can and should actually do about it – and how quickly – still seems to split families, friends, and communities.

One of our major contributions to the climate crisis is transport; yet here, we are also rife with divisions. We slip easily into unhelpful tribalism based around modes of transport: motorists against bus users; pedestrians versus motorists; everyone against cyclists! I do it myself, often oversimplifying travelling in Oxford as a choice between those selfishly fuming in their congesting metal boxes, versus the clean, green angels flying past on their bikes.

These categories are really unhelpful: many cyclists are also motorists; most train-users also use buses or taxis; and we are all pedestrians! The words themselves can be problematic too: it will always be difficult to promote a ‘pedestrian’ future, when the dictionary definition is: “showing little imagination, not interesting, boring”.

These categories are also silly: why would we define ourselves solely by our mode of transport? I walk the kids to school, ride a bike to work, take the bus to the train station, and hire a car for occasional trips to the countryside. What does that make me?

According to Lucy Saunders, an inspiring and highly experienced public health consultant, finding better words to describe our various travel choices is an important step towards showing respect for different viewpoints, reaching agreement across groups and making much-needed progress. Instead of classifying ourselves (and each other) as pedestrians, drivers, cyclists etc. She suggests we talk about people; people walking, people cycling, people driving cars, people riding on buses. The way we choose to travel does not define us.

Lucy started by researching the health impacts of transport, public space and urban planning. Happily, it turns out that public spaces designed with improving people’s health in mind, also create city streets that are – quite simply – nice places to be in; places that foster social interaction, economic vibrancy and environmental sustainability.

What’s more, she has developed ten clearly defined and measurable indicators about the health of our streets, which may just be the holy grail we’ve been looking for: impossible to argue with! After all, who doesn’t want streets that are easy to cross, have shade and shelter, places to stop and rest, are not too noisy, and where people choose to walk and cycle? Is there anyone who would protest against streets with clean air, where people have things to see and do, and everyone feels safe, relaxed, and welcome?

‘Healthy and attractive streets for all’: this is the ambition. Surely that’s something we can all agree on?

Photo: Broad Street on Car Free Day 2019

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