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Travel walking is good for your health and happiness

By MYLENE MENDOZA-DAYRIT, The Philippine STAR Published Mar 07, 2023 5:00 am

Have you ever noticed that you do not gain much weight when traveling to Europe? Despite the pasta, gelato, pizza, cheese and cakes, the non-stop walking to go from one attraction to another seems to cancel out all the indulging. That’s the reason why you can survive as a tourist in Europe without renting a car unless you are going to attractions outside the city. 

They say that walking should be encouraged because it addresses two main pandemics: obesity and loneliness. While millions around the world have rediscovered the joys of walking during the pandemic, they quickly realized as soon as the streets were full of vehicles again that their cities are not built for walking.

There are many rankings of the world’s most walkable cities and they have different criteria; thus the varying results. However, everybody seems to agree that while there is New York and a few compact US cities that will make the list, most are so sprawling that they are not really walkable.

Hong Kong has several waterfront promenades blessed with great views, wide pedestrian pavements and even outdoor art.

In Europe, you have Athens and a lot of Greek islands that are easy to roam on foot. We had a car in Athens and it remained parked all the time except for one day when we had to go visit Sounio. Italy has a lot of walkable cities like Florence, Rome, and Venice. 

Walkable cities, or places where walking is safe and easy, normally have lower pollution, fewer people with obesity and fewer road deaths. Part of the Global Action Plan on Physical Activity (GAPPA) of the World Health Organization (WHO) is the improvement of public transportation and pedestrian infrastructure, including safe walking pavements, benches, and more public parks.

Walkable cities, or places where walking is safe and easy, normally have lower pollution, fewer people with obesity, and fewer road deaths

I’ve never been to India but my son and daughter have been there. One of their impressions, which seem to be echoed by others, is how drivers there are crazy in how they maneuver the traffic. The city of Pune in India has redesigned its roads to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists through wide sidewalks with areas for children to play and vendors to sell.

Government policy and development work are crucial in developing walkable cities. Experts say that the public will make use of the infrastructure that their government gives them. Good roads will encourage people to drive cars while a good public transport system will convince them to commute.

Hong Kong steps up its bid to be one of the best walkable cities by planning areas with the pedestrian as the focus which means wider sidewalks.

Once government builds cities that are meant for walking, then indeed people will walk, which will make them healthier and happier.

The Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) based in New York reported that making cities walkable is vital to the improvement of health, lower climate-heating transport emissions, and stronger local communities and economies.

A report they published two years ago identified London, Paris, Bogotá, and Hong Kong as the world’s most walkable cities. London outranked 1,000 cities in terms of their citizen’s proximity to car-free spaces, schools, and healthcare, and the overall shortness of journeys.

Bogotá in Colombia was the only city in the top five ranking for all three measures. The first measure looked at the portion of people who live within 100 meters of a car-free space such as parks and public squares.

Bogotá has long upheld the vision of creating a city with more public space for children rather than cars. They also prioritized public transportation, cyclists, and pedestrians.

Hong Kong has 85% of its population within 100 meters of a car-free space. They took the top spot in that regard followed by Moscow, Paris, Bogotá, and London. We are all aware that the great subway system of Hong Kong makes it a commuter’s dream. And while everyone who frequents the city knows that a lot of walking will be involved in exploring the city, I am pleased to tell you (I am writing this piece here in Hong Kong) that the government has been improving its pedestrian access since the lockdown in 2020.

We were able to conveniently walk from Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon to Whampoa, which is four subway stops away. It’s a 2.3-kilometer walk, around 28 minutes, which was made a lot more enjoyable by the wide pedestrian sidewalks, linked elevated walkways, and eight parks (according to my husband who apparently took note).

The senior pedestrians are always priority for how the street walks are planned in Hong Kong.

The overall walkability strategy was formulated to give high priority to pedestrians in transport, fostering a pedestrian-friendly environment. Their “Walk in HK” initiative promotes walking as a form of sustainable urban mobility that brings about transport, social, environmental, economic, and health benefits.

The new comprehensive pedestrian planning framework has four pillars of walkability: make it connected, make it safe, make it enjoyable, and make it smart. Aside from widening pavements and sidewalks for pedestrians, a lot of walkways have also been covered for their comfort.

Directional signs have been improved and you can see informative and user-friendly maps everywhere. Pedestrian lanes have been de-cluttered of non-essential traffic signs and railings. Report says that close to 290 non-essential traffic signs and 3.5 km of pedestrian railings were removed from late 2019 to early 2021 in the pilot areas of Central and Sham Shui Po.

Other pedestrian-focused improvements are being tested all over Hong Kong such as wide-raised pedestrian crossings painted in reddish brown to enhance motorist awareness. There are attempts also to alter the design of vehicular entrances/exits from roads to establishments to provide pedestrians with a continuous walking path at uniform levels.

To develop Hong Kong as a walkable city, the government has developed a pedestrian planning framework based on a pedestrian-oriented approach, which integrates traffic, transport, land use, and development projects. I wish all governments would follow suit.