A few years ago while I was visiting Barcelona on holiday with my family I had a big learning moment in my appreciation of what needs to change in order to encourage active lives.


We were actually staying outside Barcelona but the first day we visited the city we researched what we might do and thought that as there is so much to see - with Olympic Park, the harbour, Sagrada Familia, Nou Camp stadium etc - maybe the best thing to do would be to do the bus tour.  We'd done this for a few days in London a few years earlier and had really enjoyed sitting on the top deck of an open top double decker bus taking in the sights while the tour guide explained the detail and hopping off and on at selected sights / destinations. 


But Barcelona isn't London and I soon realised the mistake of this as the heat in Barcelona was in the high thirties that summer and the bus kept stopping leaving us baking in the sun.  I just thought that the traffic in Barcelona was very busy - like any city - and of course, in a foreign capital initially I just accepted it.  However, I did reflect at the end of the day that it had been rather a sweaty day mostly spent on a hot bus.


So next time we went into the city I suggested to the family that we walk.  Initially, of course, there were groans of derision (which returned on a fairly regular basis especially from the young and supposedly fitter of the group) but I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was.  Oddly, I thought, every time we came to a pedestrian crossing it was on green - wow what a lucky day.  But also, when we came to cross a larger street (and found the crossing initially on red to allow the motor traffic to flow) it changed to green for us almost immediately on our arrival.  What a pleasant experience I thought - and then remembered my previous day in the city on the bus - how we kept stopping in the sun - and I thought to myself - Barcelona is better if you walk. 


And right there I had my epiphany moment - we all know the benefits of physical activity and we all know the double whammy of incorporating physical activity into daily life but most of the time we are wooed by the pleasures of lethargy and the 'system' society has built around us encourages this.  


But what if it was different I thought - what if the 'system' encourages us to be active?  After all the system, that encourages inactivity and slothfulness, has the benefit of our natural inclinations on its side.  Like I say if I ask my children shall we go for a walk today or drive to the cinema to watch a film I would bet my mortgage on the resulting reply - and I'm certain my family aren't unusual.


Back in England I was at an event run by Living Streets - the UK charity for everyday walking and I heard a fact that resonated with my growing awareness - that over 85% of people cross pedestrian crossings when they are on red.  Blimey that's a shocker - and why - because for one thing all pedestrian crossings are set on default (i.e. If no one is there) to be on green for cars and red for pedestrians.  What does that tell you about importance?  The car is always king - walkers can wait for cars - cars have right of way - the car is most important - no wonder we all (or at least most of us) want to learn to drive and own a car as soon as we are able.  It's a rite of passage - part of the transition into adulthood - owning and driving a car make you that bit more adult and important!?  But do they, should they, is this maybe way over inflated?  I wonder if car manufacturers and others in the 'system' have something to gain from trading on our natural desires and weaknesses here?  'Everything in moderation' was a phrase I was brought up on but are we moderate in our desire and appetite for motorised transportation?  When I look at the figures around walking short journeys under a mile I do wonder - even times when walking would be more convenient we're just jumping in the car........

Anyway back to the traffic lights and why we cross on red and the other reason is that most traffic lights take over 90 seconds to change from pedestrian red to pedestrian green.  90 seconds - that might not seem like much but next time you're full flow in the middle of something try stopping for 90 seconds and see how it feels.  Imagine the TV went on the blink for 90 seconds in the middle of a film - you'd be bashing the telly or certainly getting frustrated - if it happened more than once I suspect you'd probably give up on the film and do something else.  I wonder why we don't walk much now even for very short journeys?  Of course, back at the traffic lights and even before the pedestrian crossing turns green the cars have passed and there's a gap in traffic and so we cross.  Which is fine if you don't have mobility problems but if you do it can be a major problem.  In London, a local Living Streets group measured how long the green pedestrian stayed on for and found that for some crossings - especially across dual carriageways - there was not enough time for elderly and those with mobility issues to cross the street.  So guess what - they didn't!  And we wonder why we have such massive problems with loneliness, isolation and declining mental health?!  Some people - the most vulnerable - are effectively locked in their residential area - in the case in point the local park was the other side of that busy dual carriageway!!

Funny though (not that any of this is remotely funny) - I'm told that pedestrian crossings can be changed - as almost all have the facility to reset the default and change the timings.  I wonder why we haven't at least trialled some changes?  They clearly have in Barcelona - and to great effect if you ask me - after only one day of lethargic bus Travel my behaviour changed to active Travel.  

And just bear this in mind - in Barcelona the number of visitors making overnight stays in the city increased from 1.7 million in 1990 to more than 8 million in 16 years so it's clearly good for business too.