Cars and other motor vehicles rule the roads. This is especially true in most modern cities. Pedestrians, cyclists, and people in wheelchairs are kept away from the main roads and allocated limited spaces. Often, a person walking out in the streets feels like he or she is in a place where they are not prioritized. In the past, roads and streets must hold up to the public-rights-of-way principle. Today, people who are not in cars (cyclists, pedestrians, disabled people) feel as though they must give way to cars in terms of space and usage. And most drivers feel the same way. Cases of road rage underscore the perception of privilege and priority that some drivers feel when they’re out in the streets.
Several people and groups are making an effort to change this perception. Sidewalks and public space are being reclaimed for the walking public. The streetscape needs to be reorganized to accommodate pedestrians, children, people in wheelchairs, and even cyclists on an equal if not more prioritized level over cars and vehicles. Daunting as it may seem on a large-scale basis, it is nevertheless happening in certain locations. The Walk Friendly Community is an organization granting Walk Friendly Community Status to cities and towns with a strong commitment to improving its public spaces for its pedestrians. A group in Denver is trying to win this status for their city. Ms. Kung co-founded Walk Denver to empower fellow walkers and encourage city officials to prioritize foot traffic. Health reasons are also another incentive for group members. Another group in the same city named Walk With a Doc has the added bonus of having doctors join with their walks. Dr. Freeman, the leader of the group, shares that more than a hundred people join the walks, with as much as 10 doctors with them.
Yet empowering people to take to walking is only one side of the solution. The sidewalks and public spaces themselves need to be improved as well. Several problems affect people who use sidewalks including sidewalk cracks, angles, gutters, width, and many more. Pedestrians tend to use the center of the sidewalk and poles, telephone booths, parked cars, signs, and others further narrow the already limited space available. Another concern is how sidewalk construction affects people on wheelchairs. The US Federal Highway Administration specifies guidelines for sidewalk construction with provisions for accommodating wheelchairs. It includes interesting illustrations on how things as simple as slope and landings impede disabled people’s mobility and access.
Several suggestions have been raised, some of which have been implemented. An extreme (and for some, ideal) solution is the establishment of car-free areas in select locations. Another is designing footpaths based on the natural walking patterns of people, instead of straight lines and sharp turns. This is nicely illustrated in the famous story of an intelligent architect who planted grass between buildings to determine where the sidewalks should be built. After a few months, the grass clearly showed where people had trodden to get from one building to another. It turns out that the people’s natural footpath patterns were the most efficient paths, and the architect simply built on the established patterns.
Yet another solution is the concept of shared space, as discussed by StrongTowns.org . The idea is to basically drop the system of stop and gos, and the prioritization of cars over other users of public space and streets. The author uses the example of an open field parking lot where pedestrians and cars mingle. He asks, why is there almost always no casualty in settings like these? The answer is because both the pedestrians and the drivers were expecting and looking out for each other’s movements. While some might point out the disadvantage to drivers in this setting, the author also points out that there is no waiting periods for the drivers and general public safety is prioritized over a few seconds’ hurry.
Rethinking sidewalks and in extension, usage of public space, fits very well into the sustainable future many are already envisioning. Empowering people to feel safe and encouraged to return to the natural mode of mobility (walking) gives the world less traffic congestion, less carbon emissions, better health and fitness, and even growth in private sector investment as they cater to the growing foot traffic. To say the least, it’s a healthy step away from some of the old, unhealthy mindsets and perceptions of modern urban living.
Photo Credit: Some rights reserved by mauren veras on Flickr.
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