This trickle soon turns to a stream with the collective mass more easily carving a route through the crowd. Growing still, now a torrent. For almost an hour the Thames Path becomes swamped by trainer-clad, backpack-laden, GPS-tracked, fluorescent, sweaty, speedy people making their way home from a day at the office.
These people are run-commuters.
By all accounts, run-commuting is on the up: The number of people choosing their trainers over other modes of transport is increasing, media coverage is becoming more regular; political lobbying is swelling, and run-commuters are becoming more visible on the streets of our town and cities.
London, however, seems to be the centre of it all; forging the way for the rest of the world.
I am fascinated by why this is. There are no formal policies or strategies in place to explicitly encourage people to run to/from work, yet they are out there in their droves. London is also the site of Home Run London (the world’s first cycle-escort service for run-commuters) and the base for the run2work campaign (who are supported by the London Evening Standard). In many ways, London is the global trailblazer for run-commuting.
To explain why I am so fascinated by this, perhaps a little context.
I am a geographer based at Royal Holloway, University of London, researching all manner of running geographies. Currently, I am undertaking a three-year project into run-commuting and running’s potential as a transport mode.
Place is a major concept in geography and I was first posed the question of ‘why London?’ by a journalist. Ever since, I’ve been trying to come up with a satisfactory answer. It’s obviously a slippery-coming-together of many processes and qualities, but there do seem to be things in London’s make-up that especially promote run-commuting. In particular, there are a set of personal, cultural and geographical motives that I wish to suggest are important in understanding ‘why London?’.
Firstly, personal. Individuals most often take up run-commuting as a time-saving mechanism. The amount of mileage required in many training programmes can be difficult to fit into a normal week. Equally, other factors, such as having young children, may mean completing training runs in the evening is difficult or undesirable.
Run-commuting therefore allows people to harmonise the rhythms of life, work and training by utilising moments when they must travel to fit in running at the same time. Such time-constraints are exacerbated in London, with cultures of long working hours and above-average commuting durations—making run-commuting even more appealing.
Equally, run-commuters can be encouraged to take up the practice from a dislike for other transport modes. In general, London’s transport network is head and shoulders above anything else found in the country but it is certainly not without its issues. Some people much prefer the reliability, freedom and space afforded by donning their trainers over congested and temperamental public transport.
Secondly, culture. There are some broad cultural tastes that exist in London which makes run-commuting acceptable and attractive. Most obviously, there is the strong desire for a shift away from car-based transport and for people to lead healthier lifestyles.
Active commuting achieves both these aims and has witnessed a strong growth in recent years. This is most notable in cycling commuting, but all forms of active commuting help to establish a cultural environment where run-commuting can flourish. It makes lycra and sweaty bodies acceptable in the workplace, and has also encouraged the installation of many facilities (showers, lockers etc.) in workplaces that run-commuters require and can benefit from.
Lastly, geography. Urban form has a large role to play in creating runnable cities and dense urban areas offer the most enticing spaces for run-commuting. Central London’s density means that destinations are often not too distant from one another and can be traversed by running; and the street layout can allow for many (and sometimes quicker) routes to be carved through it.
Contrastingly, regular congestion makes road-based traffic slow and tedious; and subterranean transport is often hot, hurried, and squished. Under these conditions, run-commuting can be quite appealing.
Add into the mix the transport patterns that already exist in London, and reasons why it is such a hotbed for run-commuting become apparent. Huge swathes of London’s workforce arrive at one of London’s eight mainline train stations with the need to complete the last leg of their journey. The average distance to any Zone 1 train station from these is just 2.3 miles—a very runnable distance.
So next time you spot a trainer-clad, backpack-laden, GPS-tracked, fluorescent, sweaty, speedy person making their way home from a day at the office, applaud them and the city for being at the forefront of a global movement.