How many people in England could walk to work?

The most sustainable form of transport is the one that nature endowed us with: walking. Electric cars, greater use of buses and so on are all well and good, but encouraging people to walk is the easiest way to lower transport emissions. It’s also the easiest way to reduce traffic congestion. Besides, we’d be healthier if we walked more. It would lower obesity rates and save the NHS money.

As I know from the school run though, people aren’t short of reasons for taking the car. I regularly hear parents giving reasons why other people might be able to walk, but there’s no way they could. Same goes for the commute.

But just out of interest, how many people could walk or cycle to work? If there was a fuel crisis for example, and nobody could drive – how many of us really would be stuck?

Ian Philips at the Institute of Transport Studies in Leeds looked into this question for his Phd, aiming to discover what the potential could be for people to walk to work. The study considers the maximum time people have to travel, the need to do a school run first, the physical ability of people to walk or cycle, and much else besides. Once you’ve crunched the numbers and mapped the data, here’s what it looks like:

According to Philips’ findings, around 44% of people working in England could theoretically get to work on foot or by bike.

Why does that figure matter? Because unless we measure Britain’s capacity for active forms of transport, we won’t be able to improve it. As Philips points out, walking and cycling are often left out of national transport reviews or resilience planning, focusing instead on key roads, rail links and airports. By paying more attention to walking and cycling, we can plan for it. We can identify weak spots where we should add infrastructure or target campaigns. Now that we know how many people could theoretically walk or cycle to work, perhaps we can start to think about how to raise that number.

By encouraging more walking and cycling we can reduce our vulnerability to oil supply shocks, lower emissions, and improve human health. They should be the starting point for any vision of sustainable transport.


  1. Very thorough piece of research and analysis. I haven’t read through all 278 pages of it, but in what I did see I saw no mention of one crucial factor relating to cycling. No matter how short the distance nor how fit the cyclist, if the destination (school, workplace, shopping area) does not provide secure storage for the bike then cycling is not a realistic option.

    I cycled to work for some years, including one three-month summer period when I commuted from Stopsley to Stevenage five days a week (about 12 miles each way, including a lot of uphill on the return journey). I wouldn’t have wanted to do that Stevenage commute by bike in winter, though.

  2. The study is interested in what is theoretically possible, so it wouldn’t consider storage. If we were looking to improve the number of people who act on that theoretical possibility, then safe bike storage is a great place to start. It’s a problem I get around by having a knackered old bike that nobody would want to steal, but with Luton’s hills I’d much prefer to ride something better!

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