Caminhabilidade. Crédito: Tobias Zils/Unsplash

What is walking meant for?

Walkability in cities reflects in quality of life and access to basic products and services, allowing pedestrians to reach different spots, ensuring broad access to urban mobility

Move one square and then jump over a pothole. Move another square and divert from a pole. Move one square and step into the roadway, because the sidewalk is obstructed. Journalist Mariana Della Barba points out that pedestrians face so many challenges that these remind a board game. Even for those who can easily walk, big city streets often present troubled routes with scant signs, wide blocks, distant overpasses and such narrow sidewalks that make the traffic of wheelchairs or strollers impossible.

Walking around the city means less pollution, less stress, more cost efficiency and much more health, as physical activity helps combating overweight and obesity, as well as related problems such as hypertension, heart and joint problems. Also, lower levels of carbon dioxide impact the reduction of lung diseases.

According to INRIX 2017 Traffic Scorecard, population and economic growth alongside continued urbanization are the root causes of congestion. By 2050 there will be 9.7 billion people in the world, 70 percent of whom will live in cities. In the same period, the global economy is expected to triple in size leading to double road and rail travel and more than a threefold increase in the amount of road and rail freight.

Los Angeles tops the study ranking as the most gridlock-plagued city. Its drivers spent on average 102 peak hours in congestion in 2017, followed by Moscow (91 hours), New York (91 hours), and São Paulo (86 hours). According to the Associação Nacional de Transportes Públicos - ANTP (Brazilian Public Transportation Association - ANTP), 36% of the Brazilian population walks to work. 31% use car and 29%, public transport. But in São Paulo, for instance, 25% of car commuting is for short trips, in a 3-kilometer perimeter.

Paul Hawken, an American environmentalist and researcher, wrote the audacious Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming (Penguin Books, 2017). The publication lists a hundred solutions to reverse global warming, and emphasizes: if more investment is made towards walkability in cities until 2050, about 5% of routes currently taken by car will be taken on foot. This change would prevent 2.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide from being released into the environment.

What is walkability?

Better lit streets, less waiting time for pedestrian crossing; safe and broad sidewalks, accessibility to children, elderly and disabled persons, benches, urban forestry, efficient collective transport, areas of shade, recreational squares, ground level stores. All these elements help when deciding whether to walk or drive, but most measures are rolled out on a municipal level and in public management decisions.

Mixed neighborhoods with balanced zoning between residential and basic services areas such as schools, hospitals and grocery stores, help lower the demand for commuting and, therefore, the use of private transportation. Lara Freitas, co-founder of project Ecobairro (Eco-neighborhood), highlights that globalization has, among other effects, disconnected people from their living or working place, so that they do not notice their daily spaces, as this broadens vision and makes people adopt much broader measures.

“We invite citizens to take decisions, explore new ways and be aware of the work done around their neighborhood, be aware of the street, condominium, villa, or neighborhood, as our quality of life depends on the quality of those spheres.” The project, which started in São Paulo, has reached Bahia and there are debates in Manaus and Brasília about expanding its activities as Instituto Ecobairro (Eco-neighborhood Institute), which is supported by the worldwide organization Municipalities in Transition (MiT).