Interview of Will Norman
Mayor of London's Walking & Cycling Commissioner
2019, March 07th
What was London's starting point prior to elaborating and implementing all the strategies?
The key is understanding the challenges London is facing. London has been an extremely successful city and will continue to be. We have a city that is continuing to grow but with that growth comes consequences- we have a toxic air crisis responsible for over 9000 premature deaths per year. Another is the inactivity crisis as London as the most inactive kids of the UK. As regards adults the situation is also just as bad with around only 30% of adults are physically active enough, which feeds into the GBP 1.7 billion cost to the health service of directly related diseases. Of course there is the stark climate change emergency that affects us all. And on top of these areas of concern, we have a congestion crisis- every morning there are 250, 000 cars just doing school runs.
In parallel London continues to grow, before 2050 an additional 2 million inhabitants are predicted. We simply have to change the way people move around the city and we are doing so through policies based on research, data and evidence. Doing nothing is simply not an option anymore, and this goes from all perspectives- health, competition, and quality of life. That is why we have put health outcomes at the centre of our transport policies in order to respond to the crisis.
What initial priorities points were set to foster more daily physical activity among Londoners' habits?
We do a lot of of research to pinpoint the challenges and priorities and thus drive a shift in habits, and away from private cars! We know around 60% of mobility in London is done by walking, cycling or public transport; and we want to raise that to 80% by 2041. We realised one of the keys is how we design our streets and our transport networks- we need to enable people to see streets as safe and welcoming to the community. That is our first priority. For my agenda, that translates into how to make streets safe for walking and cycling, which requires an increase in infrastructure but also a shift in behaviours and culture. We know we need to get kids active from an early age and we know we need to include under represented groups in the change for which we have programmes.
How did all these actions plans originate- top-down or bottom-up? How and who initiated cross-sector partnerships? How did alliances take shape'?
Before I became full-time Walking and Cycling Commisioner there was a part-time Cycling Commisioner, but we came to realise including walking makes it a much more inclusive agenda- everybody starts their day by a walk! On average people walk 1 minute to access their car whereas to access public transports it’s 8-12 minutes. Just by prioritising public transport we are indirectly addressing some inactivity issues. Obviously with walking and cycling we are taking this response to another level, one that bears greater potential!
The desire for change came from every direction. It comes from the top since it’s a personal priority for the Mayor who takes the air quality and inactivity crises very seriously. As Mayor he sets all of London’s topical strategies for his mandate, and this line of work in not restrained to the Transport Strategy but this work is also now embedded into planning and environment policies too, for example. The Mayor is also a politician, he therefore listens to demands and responds to the views of Londoners- strong community will and campaigns have been increasingly growing and pressuring politics. In terms of delivering, it’s only by working together across local governments, local business and local communities that we can make this work.
I think alliances are still taking shape and I don’t think the trend will stop. Businesses are becoming very aware and demanding of the necessity for increased quality of life which affects productivity and the attracted labour force. Many local businesses are seeing that pedestrians tend to spend much more than drivers in their shops. There is a general realisation about the current challenges and about the share of responsibility. Cross-sector partnerships have existed for some time, what’s interesting is their growth in numbers, diversity and size.
Many of the quantified objectives are set for 2024, some for 2041, which are after Sadiq Khan's current mandate. How are you planning to safeguard these strategies and objectives for the future?
We have targets for the end of Sadiq Khan’s term in 2020 but there this approach is built into our budget cycle and business plans which go onto 2024. As regards the future mandates and the safeguarding of these targets, this is where cross-sectoral alliances, campaigners and the change in culture step in. As said before the Mayor sets the agenda and he does so by answering the demand and needs of Londoners- there is a grassroots will for these changes to materialise. Of course there is opposition and interested parties, but the opposition is a loud minority. The majority of people want these changes. But that desire is very alive across a variety of sectors. It’s an important part of our work to showcase what works! In one area of London, the intervention we have been leading has already brought about tremendous change: on average people walk at least 32 minutes more per week, cycling has increased, life expectancy has increased by 6 weeks due to the change in air pollution, and a reduction in congestion of 38%. Knock-on impact are flourishing businesses, shops that are no longer empty. There are also very human changes with kids now playing in the streets and residents being able to hear birdsongs outside for the first time in years. People love it! That’s not a feeling that is going to disappear. When people feel and witness the actual benefits on their communities, health and lives, they will not want to lose them again- and more people will be asking for the same. The sustainability is not just political, it’s more importantly about telling the stories of success and about people asking for these changes.