Boris Johnson and Sir Chris Hoy on bicycles

+ More high-profile advocates of walking would help to realise the benefits.

I’ve argued previously that walkable cities are better cities and one way to encourage more walking is through role models or champions. So where are the walking champions?

It’s estimated that, in Europe, inactivity could be killing more than twice as many people as obesity. The University of Cambridge researchers behind these findings concluded that getting everyone to do at least 20 minutes of brisk walking a day would have substantial benefits. 

What’s more, a 20-minute walk could easily replace a car journey, reducing pollution and congestion. This is because, according to the latest National Travel Survey in England, 18% of all trips made in 2013 were less than one mile in length.

To see how advocates could boost walking, you just have to look at cycling. Figures from politics, media and sport act as cycling champions. For example, the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is often photographed on his bike. 

Having high-profile champions like this has undoubtedly raised the profile and appeal of cycling. Crucially, this doesn’t just mean more people going for weekend rides in the countryside; the popularity of cycling for urban transport has increased. In New York City, twice as many people now commute by bike as in 2009. Now we need someone to lead the way for walking as a form of urban transport.

Yes, there are some celebrity walkers. Janet Street-Porter is a famous rambler and a former president of the Ramblers’ Association. Comedian and actor David Mitchell is an enthusiastic walker and has spoken about how it helped him to recover from injury and lose weight.

Nigerian Novelist and poet Ben Okri has written beautifully about how walking “keeps us close to the right level of life and to the natural pace of things”. Meanwhile, novelist and professor of contemporary thought Will Self talks about the “importance of walking in the fight against corporate control”.

Now we need more mainstream figures to become advocates. Walking needs a champion with some hefty media clout if it is to taken seriously as a mode of transport – instead of only as what you do when you don’t have a car.

Walking needs a champion who can turn it from a necessity into a lifestyle choice. This is how cycling is now marketed. When you buy your fancy carbon bike, you’re buying a little piece of a lifestyle. Yet there’s no equivalent for walking, nobody whose walking lifestyle we’re being encouraged to buy into.

Of course, unlike cycling, walking requires little equipment beyond a sturdy pair of shoes. That’s part of the problem, of course – there’s little to attract marketers. But I believe governments and city leaders could do more to sell the benefits of walking (especially given the savings they could make on healthcare costs). And I think finding high-profile advocates would be a very effective way to do it.

Many changes that happen in urban living have a champion of some sort – a person who makes that change their mission. Now walking needs to find its champion.