How Millennials Can Help Create a Culture of Walking

Have you ever seen a person driving a motorbike to a nearby minimarket, which will otherwise take less than five minutes of walking? That is not a rare sight in some cities in Indonesia, not to mention Jakarta, the capital. The absence of comfortable walkways, the sweltering heat, pollution, daily habits, and lack of environmental awareness are among the reasons. This issue coincides with the journal ‘Large-scale physical activity data reveal worldwide activity inequality’ that found Indonesia the least out of 46 countries in the list of ‘countries’ numbers of steps per day,’ numbering only 3,513; nearly half of Hong Kong’s 6,880 that tops the list. Walking is free and has many benefits; not only is it good for health, walking is also effective to reduce pollution and reserve energy. Considering these facts, one would perhaps wonder why the Indonesian government has yet to put any sustained effort in promoting a culture of walking among its citizens. Revamping the walkways for the Asian Games 2018 are surely great, but dealing with public infrastructure requires more than just an ad hoc effort.

The problem of walkability in Indonesian cities is deep-rooted and systemic; solving the problem would require the application of a multidimensional approach, which has also gained traction among policymakers. In light of that, here is what I offer: there is something unique about the millennial generation—the digitally aware society, born between the early 1980s and early 2000s—that we could actually exploit to promote a culture of walking in a city. The millennial generation is currently the bulk of Indonesian population, will be the ones to seethe through the city crossroads, and will be the cohort to shape the future of Indonesian culture.

Just in recent years people begin to realize that at the heart of millennials are experience seekers. They value experiences—traveling, live performances, sporting events, concerts, and other social events—over owning things. In 2017, an Indonesia-based NGO Orde Insani Foundation went out to ask 713 Indonesian millennials about what they consider as basic needs, and found that only a third of them consider a house and vehicle as such. In their telling during a seminar, the finding can be attributed to the growing phenomenon of millennials looking for experiences—a trend that, in a happenstance, dovetails neatly with the current social media frenzy.

A Shareable Moment on a Well-designed Walkway

We have learned in brief that millennials have this tendency of looking for and sharing experiences. Now what if we apply this sort of mindset to promote a culture of walking in a city? To begin with it, creating a culture of walking will not be feasible unless there are enough walkways to accommodate it. Walkways are the space where pedestrians can make their own unique experiences of walking. By designing walkways that can cater to millennials’ preference—that is, a space where one can create a ‘shareable’ experience—we have walked through a fast-track that can make any efforts of promoting a culture of walking come easier.

And here is good news to that. A poll conducted by the National Association of Realtors (NAR) and the Transportation Research and Education Center at Portland State University in 2015 finds that “millennials [in the U.S.] prefer walking over driving by a substantially wider margin than any other [of the older] generation.” Moreover, a new NAR poll in 2017 provides another insight, finding that, in addition to the millennial, the silent generation—those who born before 1944 and in their dotage now—are also up for a walkable community. Although based in the U.S, the data could at least reveal two things: young people are already embedded with the ‘X’ factor ergo are more tractable; and, since a sizeable number of the elders are also for it, that means it better starts now or it will be too late!

However, designing walkways can be challenging, let alone for it to be ‘shareable.’ A report by the New York City (NYC)’s Transportation Department ‘Active Design: Shaping the Sidewalk Experience’ offers an interesting view on walkways by employing the ‘sidewalk [walkway] room’ concept—I will use the word ‘walkway’ in lieu of ‘sidewalk’ because it’s more comprehensive. In the concept’s view the walkway is seen as a center of a room surrounded by four planes, comprising the ground plane (below, basically the walkway structure), roadside (left/right side of the walkway), building wall (left/right), and canopy (above). Every object is there around the four planes are considered to affect the pedestrian experience, hence should be well incorporated into the design process. To attract millennials means to beautify and enrich the enclosing ‘planes’ with objects or experiences so that it could give them the experiences that are ‘shareable.’ (Ideally, designing walkways should be incorporated as earliest as when planning the zonation and neighborhood, but I will not go into that detail here.)

Some cities have begun to experiment with their walkways to provide users with more experiences. Toronto Park People (TPP), a Canada-based NGO, takes this to another level. In their proposed plan, walkways are considered as part of a larger scheme of a connected green parks and open space system. Walkways are the links that will connect one park and open space to another. With this plan, pedestrians will not have to worry about ending their scenic trips because all the parks and open space are connected in a closed-loop network. To top that, the plan is not only about connecting parks and open space, but making the connecting links—i.e. the walkways—become the park and open space itself. In essence, they proposed so that every nook and cranny in the system be designed in such a way that it will attract people to traverse on it: for instances, along the walkways are shady trees to protect pedestrians from the burning sunlight; in between the walkways are small spaces that could be used as a stage for busking, a hall for murals, a spot to have a small conversation with fellow neighbors on the provided park benches, and a space for holding many other community activities—both regular and occasional. (The former instance—of planting trees along the walkways—will be especially suitable for tropical cities like in Indonesia: two other reasons that prevent Indonesians from walking around are because most of them are still afraid of getting darker skin due to sun exposure and body moist due to sultry weather.)

With eye-catching views of the ‘walkway rooms’ created through well-thought designs and elements of surprise through community activities, the system will provide ample room for millennials to express themselves and share it on social media, increasing the chance of people following similar routine. It is hoped that a repeated course of actions and amplification through exposure in the social media will bring the society move toward a culture of walking. Indeed, there is no magic wand to determine the outcome, but if the government is bidding their time, perhaps now is the right moment to start making the planning: the odds are good.