Tag Archives: pedestrians

Walking: Punishable by a fine of $197.

Image courtesy New York Times.

Image courtesy New York Times.

The planning world is (moderately) abuzz lately with news that LA and New York have been ticketing pedestrians for unsafe walking in an attempt to cut down on car-walker conflicts.

While this has generated at least three news articles that I have seen, it has not generated the response that I feel the whole thing deserves.  I don’t think there should be outrage or hysteria or even sadness, but mockery: ticketing pedestrians for walking are ludicrous, and has not been treated with the derision it deserves. It is also reminiscent of a recent traffic safety campaign in London where cyclists and motorists – but really, mostly cyclists – were lectured by police stations around the city (and in some cases fined) for unsafe behavior.  This isn’t because walkers or bikers are inherently behaving more dangerously, but because they move more slowly and can hear more clearly when police yell at them.

The most depressing thing is that it seems like, in both cities, ticketing pedestrians stems from a sincere effort to reduce injuries. In doing so, however, it assumes that pedestrians are to blame for car-on-walker conflicts, and it also assumes that people crossing the streets cannot be trusted to act responsibly and with an iota of common sense.  In fact, most pedestrian traffic injuries occur at intersections when cars are trying to turn into pedestrians’ right-of-way.

My father (who recently called me a proto-fascist for my views on smoking), taught me that there is a clear hierarchy in terms of street priority: people before machines. Practically, this means that pedestrians come first, then cyclists, then I suppose buses.  The easiest take-away is this: cars come last. Cars always come last. While this was a credo that he embraced much more firmly after he started cycling, it is also an easy, simple mantra that guided my notion of good placemaking.  In big cities, the large numbers of pedestrians – who, let’s not forget, also constitute traffic – should be welcomed; they are a sign that the city is a good place to be. Instead, they are cited as obstructions to auto traffic and confined to narrow sidewalks.

Its a truism in planing that people will follow the shortest route between two places. They don’t like long, scenic walks between crosswalks; if jaywalking is the easiest way to get from point A to point B, that is what they will be inclined to do. And that’s a good thing.  Because a lot of what pedestrians do in cities is spend money: when I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I lived on State Street, the city’s most famous commercial (and largely pedestrianised) thoroughfare.  And thank goodness I had a bike.  Because on the rare occasion that I walked, I spent money: I would rent a movie (because this was in the heady early days of streaming video, back when video rentals existed), or buy an ice cream cone or a bubble tea or some other ridiculous thing that I absolutely did not need.  And then I’d walk down the street in the evening summer sun, thinking about how great State Street was and wishing I was old enough to get into bars (not necessarily in that order). WalkBoston, an advocacy group in Massachusetts, have crafted their whole mission around that idea: people on foot are better for the economy that people traveling by any other means, because of their tendency to spontaneously spend money

Cities have an obligation to make their streets as safe as possible for as many people as possible – I think most people agree that public safety is one of the functions of municipal government. And there are all sorts of ways to do that without tickets, for anyone.  As many others have pointed out, the best way to reduce rule-breaking is to make rules that work better for people.  That could mean installing mid-block crosswalks, making traffic crossing times longer, or installing more ‘all green scrambles’ where all car traffic is held at a corner and walkers can cross diagonally, all of which are compromise options (I haven’t even mentioned woonerfs yet!). People have a right to use their own streets, the same way cyclists and cars do. The notion that cars have some god-given priority is laughable, or would be if it didn’t seem to govern city policy all over the world.  When that happens, the whole thing just becomes depressing.


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New Pedestrianism = Not all its cracked up to be

In my last post, I rhapsodized about Vauban, a neighborhood in Freiburg that has been hailed as the most ecologically advanced in Europe.  I mentioned in passing that I had been to a similarly pedestrian-oriented development in Belgium called Louvain Le Neuve, but that it had felt like the creepy empty cities in Inception.  This post is a defense of that characterization (people have suggested I was being harsh, but I wasn’t – that place is frickin’ weird.)

Louvain Le Neuve is a university town that was built in the 70s after a dispute at a nearby university about the language of instruction (French vs. Flemish).  The French speaking contingent eventually left in a fit of pique and set up at a greenfield site that became the university town.  The entire thing was built on a giant platform, so that cars circulate at ground level but your experience of the city as a pedestrian is completely car-free.

Many Belgium university students go home at the weekend (or at least I assume they do, because the place was deserted), which makes it difficult to develop much in the way of an active town centre or vibrant university life. And while they apparently worked really hard to recruit families, it seems to me to be a pretty tough sell – “come live in this city with no arts or culture apart from the university, which is ugly.”

I’m sure I didn’t totally give the town a fair shake – it was mid-winter; it was a weekend afternoon and many of the shops were closed; and I didn’t actually ask any of the locals what they felt about it.  But here are the things that I noticed:

1, there was no greenery! It felt completely sterile.  The top photo shows the central square – as you can see, there’s not a blade of grass to be seen.

2, the streets felt dark.  Again, this might have been a function of the season.  But the ratio of street to building height felt all wrong, which exacerbated the empty feeling of the city.

To be fair, the whole place is essentially a university campus, and universities are typically pretty low on cars.  And the thing that brought us there, the Tintin Museum, was a beautiful, light-filled, lovely place.  It was approached by a boardwalk next to a construction site that might one day be something else really nice. And there appeared to be walking trails in a wooded area beyond the museum that we didn’t explore – but that I can, in theory, totally get behind.

The thing I took most from the visit, at the time, is that cars can be an important feature in animating a city and encouraging people to move through it.  Of course its more nuanced than that, since clearly there are all sorts of places with mostly carless, treeless, narrow streets that are very successful.  If you live in or have visited Louvain la Neuve I’d be interested to hear your opinion & experiences.

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