What's needed is a plan. First, to give the very clear health message that if you want to live a long and healthy life then one of the best things you can do is to keep walking. Second, to give regular reminders that walking short journeys doesn't actually take that long. Third, to develop public infrastructure so that walking and cycling are not only easier and safer but also have higher status.
Now whilst I might be won over by health messages, evidence suggests that, in general, just telling people something is good for them doesn't work. Indeed it can often provoke a defensive backlash. With any communications strategy there's a time and place and the right time and place for messages about health is when people are visiting the doctor. Suppose that next to the reception at your GP's surgery there was a simple poster showing a map of the local area with the surgery at the centre. Concentric circles around the surgery could be labelled with the typical time it would take to walk there. At the top of the poster would be the surgery's name and address and at the bottom the simple message "Walking is good for you". Put up a few more posters in the waiting area with the simple message "For a healthy old age keep walking". It's a simple message, delivered in the right place to the right people and, because it's in a doctor's surgery, clearly carries medical authority.
A few years ago responsibility for public health in England and Wales was handed over to Local Authorities. These are also the bodies responsible for things like waste disposal, schools, social care and highways. At an institutional level I've no doubt that they recognise the importance of encouraging everyday physical activity, but for a number of reasons it hasn't been far up their priorities. There are clearly opportunities to promote the message in schools (encouraging parents to walk their children to school rather than drive) and in social care (making sure looked after people are given the opportunity to get out and walk) but also in the ways in which we draw attention to existing infrastructure.
Over the years we've made a number of improvements to the old Scarborough Whitby railway line. One of the ones I'm most proud of is the Candler Street ramp in Scarborough. This connects a densely populated set of streets directly to the track in a place where there was once just a retaining wall. When the ramp was first installed it wasn't used by very many people. It took about a year to be discovered and then incorporated into everyday journeys. Now it's simply taken for granted and in near constant use.
A good way to remind people that they could choose to walk is to put up signs that give directions to key destinations along with typical walking times. Each time you're sat in a traffic jam alongside a sign you'd not only be reminded that you could have chosen to walk but also that at least someone thinks this might be a good idea.
So, part 1 = simple messages in GP surgeries and hospitals, part 2 = well signed walking routes with times and distances, part 3 = raise the quality of the infrastructure for walking and cycling so that it has a higher status and feels safe.
Candler Street Ramp