Germany has set an ambitious plan to make its streets friendlier and safer for pedestrians through strategic changes in land use, street infrastructure and other key areas informs Claudia Adriazola-Steil and Alejandro Schwedhelm
Walking, as simple as it is, is key to many current urban issues. As car ownership grows, people are walking less and becoming less physically active generally, especially adolescents, more than 80% of whom are insufficiently active.
The impacts are manifold. Lack of physical activity is quickly becoming a major health risk, leading to 3.2 million premature deaths every year. The effects range from heart disease and obesity to depression and lack of social connection. More people commuting long distances in cars also worsens congestion, which can have staggering economic and air quality effects. Just two Brazilian cities lost $43 billion from traffic congestion in 2014, for example, and an estimated 4.2 million people die every year as a result of exposure to ambient air pollution.
Deliberate strategies to boost the safety, feasibility and allure of walking are needed if cities are going to accommodate the more than 2.5 billion additional urbanites expected by midcentury, while helping the world avert the worst effects of climate change. London’s Walking Action Plan, for example, aims to make walking the first choice of travel in the city for all short distances.
But Germany is dreaming even bigger. Following the blueprint laid out by their successful National Cycling Plan, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency and the German Institute for Urban Affairs launched a 55-page policy framework in October 2018 that lays the groundwork for a national walking plan.
Though the full policy is forthcoming, Germany’s framework plan recommends a series of clear national goals and strategies, and is an outstanding model for other countries to follow to develop their own plans to bring the change we need in cities.
Realistic Goals and Detailed Strategies
A comprehensive national policy can be an effective driver for large-scale change at the municipal level. Direction from the capital can encourage collaboration across different levels of government as well as across different agencies and departments.
Germany’s National Cycling Plan has proven effective in bringing together stakeholders from federal states, city governments and academia to implement the plan and make significant achievements, including a 12% increase in the number of bicycle trips, over 35% increase in kilometers cycled per day, and more than 30% reduction in cyclist fatalities since phase 1 of the plan was implemented.
Germany’s walking policy framework proposes seven targets and five strategies to make streets friendlier to pedestrians. These address many of the systemic issues that have made today’s cities hostile to walkers, including safety problems (over 300,000 pedestrians killed every year, representing 23% of all road traffic deaths worldwide) and rising car ownership that is making cities more congested and less accessible to non-motorized road users.
A Safe System Approach
The goals and strategies proposed in the policy framework embody a “Safe System” approach to road safety. They are designed to improve the systemic issues affecting walking rather than focusing on user behavior as the problem. For example, one of the proposed national goals is increasing the share of people walking in Germany from 27% to 41% in urban areas while cutting the number of pedestrian traffic deaths 20% by 2030. In order to achieve this, the policy framework proposes introducing a 30-kilometer-per-hour standard speed limit in all urban areas and new minimum design standards for infrastructure elements, such as at least 2.5-meter-wide sidewalks, shorter and safer pedestrian crossings, better street lighting, and other measures that make walking safer. The idea is to change road systems, as well as road users.