Walking in a warming world

6 Sep 2021

Although covid currently dominates the news, climate change is quite possibly the biggest issue the world is grappling with.

Walking can be part of the solution. Walking rather than driving is a way of reducing emissions, so Victoria’s Climate Change Strategy aims for 25% of transport trips to be undertaken via active transport by 2030. Currently around 90% of active transport trips are made on foot. 

But while every effort should be made to reduce emissions and climate change, the warming has already begun.  As the planet heats up, we will need to find ways to cope in the coming decades.

So what will a warming Australia mean for walking and how can we make sure we can keep stepping out in the future?

Likely impacts of climate change on walking

Climate change will result in generally warmer or hotter weather and probably a drier climate with more extreme weather events, including storms, floods and bushfires. Generally speaking this can be expected to make walking less comfortable in the summer and inland areas and possibly more comfortable in the winter and cooler locations. However Victoria Walks' social media engagement suggest that summer heat is already a bigger deterrent to walking than winter cold.

Providing shade over walking paths and minimising urban heat more generally will be increasingly important to maintain summer walking.

Climate change threatens important locations for recreational walking.  Sea level rise threatens beaches, coastal walking paths and tracks.  Flooding events may damage important recreational paths along waterways and storms could damage or block paths in forest areas. Bushfire will be an increasing risk for people walking in natural areas, especially in regional Victoria and the urban fringe.

Managing the risks to walking

To keep walking into the future, we'll need to increase weather protection in the street through shop canopies and street trees for shade. 

The Victorian Government is aware of the need to green the suburbs to reduce the urban heat island affect, where hard surfaces absorb heat and make the streets even hotter than the background temperature.  Tree canopies can reduce the temperatures of the surfaces they shade by 10-25°C. The government have initiated a welcome $5 million program to plant trees in Melbourne’s western suburbs. However, this should only be seen as the start of what needs to be an ongoing program of investment.

And while tree planting anywhere is useful, it will be important to target efforts to provide street trees adjacent to the footpath to provide shade for walkers. Trees in a central median or neighbouring properties look good and help cooling, but will not provide optimal shade for people walking. Local councils should be actively encouraged and funded by the Government to provide additional street trees.

Apart from street trees, we will need to retrofit existing off-street car parks with trees and avoid constructing new at-grade car parks, along with broader efforts to reduce urban heating from hard surfaces.

Other measures needed include:

  • Minimise delays in crossing the road that leave people exposed to the weather while they wait. While all road users value their time and dislike waiting, only people walking or riding are exposed to the elements in the street environment while they wait.
  • Ensure climate change responses such as electric vehicle charging do not compromise access to the footpath or other walking paths.
  • Support adaptation of the public transport system.
  • Manage the threat to key recreational corridors along rivers from increased flooding, with a contingency fund to repair damaged paths.
  • Prioritise drainage of key walking connections prione to flooding, such as train station underpasses.
  • Maintain public access to the coast, including walking along the coast, as sea level rises.
  • Manage increased bushfire risk in recreational open space areas.

Victoria Walks recently provided detailed comments on climate change adaptation for walking to the state  government (link below). Let's hope that we can enjoy a cool walk into the future.

Read our submission

Story by Duane Burtt