Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938


By Tim Olds

We are walking less than ever, but urbanisation isn’t always to blame.

When did you last go for a walk? A really long walk? We used to walk more than we do today. Today, the average Australian walks for about 40 minutes per day, and that includes walking to the shops or walking from the car to the office. Daily walking time increases from 24 minutes for 10-year-olds, peaks at 54 minutes when we are in our 40s and 50s (the work years), and then falls back to 24 minutes again in our 70s. Hunter-gatherer groups like the Ache and !Kung walk 2–4 hours each day.

Reading journals from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, one is struck by the sheer volume of walking. Wordsworth, a great walker, tramped 2–3 hours each day over the Lakes district for 60 years, covering more than 300,000 km in his lifetime. In a charming and detailed account of life at a British country school in 1922, Virginia Bedale reported that schoolchildren would walk 2–5 hours each day to and from school. In a study that simulated life in the early Australian colony at Old Sydney Town, Australian researchers recorded people walking 4–6 hours each day.

Walking was not only functional, it was also considered to be therapeutic and meditative. Sixteenth century doctors stressed the importance of daily walks for health, and Queen Elizabeth I had a special gallery constructed where she walked an hour each night before dinner. A doctor in 1882 advised walking as a cure for asthma: “Of all remedies, there is none for me so complete and lasting as a day of severe walking exercise — five-and-twenty miles over hilly ground”.

Walking was seen as an opportunity for reflection. Aristotle’s peripatetic school lectured as they walked, something that modern universities might benefit from. “Ambulando solvitur,” wrote St Augustine (“It is solved by walking”), while for Nietzsche “all truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”.

Why do we walk less now? The main reason is that we can. When we have to walk or cycle, we will. In a study of French diaries kept during World War Two, the two most common words were “nourriture” (food) and “vélo” (bicycle).

Now that we have plenty of cars, we no longer need to walk or cycle. The annual driving distance in Australia increased from 3000 km in 1960 to 6000 km in 1990. By 2012, the average vehicle travelled 14,000 km per year.

The main thing determining whether we walk or drive is distance. The further away our destination, the less likely we are to walk. There is no magic distance beyond which we choose to drive rather than walk. The probability of walking or cycling declines smoothly as distance increases in a mathematically predictable way, but the parameters of the equation vary from place to place. In The Netherlands, 50% of people will walk or cycle if the distance they are travelling is less than 3 km. In the UK, that distance is 2 km. In 10–12-year-old Australian kids, the 50% distance is just 1 km, or about 15 minutes.

In some senses, the city is the enemy of walking. A Los Angeles planning report from 1960 complained that “the pedestrian remains the largest single obstacle to free traffic movement,” a philosophy that visitors to footpath-free US cities such as Baton Rouge might well feel still holds sway.

In another sense, urbanism encourages walking. Urban density is closely associated with the likelihood of walking: greater urban density means more walking because it means shops, schools and friends’ houses are closer. In The Netherlands, 46% of all trips involve walking or cycling. In Australia, it is 14%. In the US it is just 7%.

Amsterdam, with a density of 55 people per hectare, has the highest proportion of active trips (35%). In Houston (10 people per hectare), only 3% of all trips are by bike or foot. People also walk faster as urban density increases.

Perceptions of safety also impact on walking. Each year, about 412,000 pedestrians and 107,000 cyclists are killed on the road. The most dangerous area is East Africa (where 55% of all fatalities are pedestrians), and the safest Western Europe and the US (15% of all fatalities).

Children walking to school are particularly at risk. One British study found that kids walking to school are 50 times more likely to be killed than kids being driven to school. The irony is that they are most likely to be killed by other parents driving their kids to school.

We still see feats of walking worthy of Wordsworth. On 17 October 2011 a 56-year-old Canadian, Jean Béliveau, completed a 75,000 km, 11-year walk around the world, covering 19 km each day. Less fortunate was 42-year-old Richard Swanson, who on 1 May 2013 set out to dribble a soccer ball 16,000 km from his home in Oregon to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. Three days later he was run over and killed by a truck.

Professor Tim Olds leads the Health and Use of Time Group at the Sansom Institute for Health Research, University of South Australia.

*In last month’s column, Mr Average was the figure on the left; Mrs Average was in the middle.