1. Transport
January 22, 2016updated 29 Jul 2021 2:32pm

Shanks’s Pony: In which English & Welsh cities are commuters most likely to walk to work?

By Jonn Elledge

The latest instalment of our weekly series, in which we use the Centre for Cities’ data tools to crunch some of the numbers on Britain’s cities.

There are a number of characteristics that would probably help persuade a city’s residents to walk to work. Lots of green space. Lots of rivers or canals. General picturesque-ness.

But one of the big ones, surely, must be size. In a city of 100,000, people are more likely to live close to their office than in a city of 1m people. That stands to reason, right?

And so, we’ve plotted population size against the proportion of the population that walk to work each day (both sets of figures are from the 2011 census). We’ve removed London, for no other reason than its sheer size means it warps the graph. For what it’s worth, around 8.7 per cent of Londoners walk to work, very slightly less than in Birmingham.

Here’s the result:

Which doesn’t look like much of a correlation.

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It’s true that bigger cities – those of over 500,000 people – tend to have relatively few walking commuters. But Bristol breaks this pattern (14.9 per cent of Bristolians walk to work, which is relatively high).

And there are plenty of small cities where hardly anyone walks. Gloucester, Grimsby, Newport: all have populations of less than 160,000, yet fewer than one in eight workers walk to walk.

It seems that being a big city can reduce the number of walkers, but being a small one is no guarantee that people will get off their backsides and make the effort.

So, bang goes that theory.

Here are the 10 cities where people are most likely to walk:

Source: Centre for Cities/ONS Census. Due to issues of comparability, data is not available for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

The old university towns (Oxford, Cambridge, York) are all in there, which isn’t surprising because they’re generally nice places to walk around. There are a few seaside towns (Brighton, Hastings, Plymouth), and a couple in East Anglia (Ipswich and Norwich – maybe being flat helps).

But there’s no obvious pattern, if we’re honest. They’re mostly quite small… except Bristol and Cardiff, which aren’t. Answers on a postcard.

What about the other end of the league table? Here’s the bottom 10.

Source: Centre for Cities/ONS Census. Due to issues of comparability, data is not available for Scotland or Northern Ireland.

And here there is a pattern. Fully half of these cities have one big thing in common.  Can you see it?

Okay, we’ll come to that in a second: let’s note some other characteristics here first. Two of these cities (London, Birmingham) are among England’s largest: a lot of people will simply live too far from their workplaces to walk in.

Several of the others double as suburbs of bigger cities. Wigan is on the edge of Manchester, Crawley and Adlershot are dormitory towns for London, Birkenhead is in some ways an arm of Liverpool, even if the Mersey means there is  literally no way to get between them on foot. So that’s probably a factor in keeping walking numbers down, too.

But five of these cities have something else in common. Peterborough, Crawley, Telford, Milton Keynes, Warrington – every one of them is a “new town”, one of the series of new communities planned and built in the decades after the Second World War.

Those decades were also the period in which car ownership became all but universal: these are cities created at a time when roads were the future. It’s hard to see that as a coincidence.

Here’s an interactive map of this data. Hover the mouse over any city and it’ll give you the figures.


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