Pedestrian is King!

I think it’s time I did a post on pedestrians. I consider walking the “fundamental unit of transportation” for human beings; no matter what other mode of transportation we use, it almost always involves some amount of walking. We have been walking for thousands of years, and despite what Disney/Pixar might think, I don’t think we’re about to stop entirely. Of course, as with most of my posts, my thinking has been spurred by a couple of things I have been exposed to recently:

  • A recent Calgary Herald article, which presented an interview with Andrew King, the project manager for Step Forward, which is a new strategy Calgary has planned for pedestrians. There are a number of goals of the plan, some are soft goals – like encouraging Calgarians to do errands on foot where they used to use vehicles, and some with hard results – like reducing the number of pedestrian fatalities. The Q&A was interesting, and I look forward to seeing more tangible results from the program.
  • A Freakonomics podcast about pedestrian fatalities, outlining a major problem in New York about pedestrian deaths, and questions the way in which we accept pedestrian-vehicle collisions as a fact of life (the drivers aren’t always at fault, by the way).
  • A TED talk by Jeff Speck outlining three separate yet equal arguments why we need to start thinking about walking.

I don’t intend to talk about reducing pedestrian fatalities, at least not directly. There are lots of good ideas to accomplish that including engineering better intersections, keeping pedestrians and vehicles separated as much as possible (Calgary’s +15 walkway system does this, though there’s a whole other post to be written about them), and generally slowing down and reducing vehicular traffic. These are all steps in the right direction. Instead, I thought it would be fun to think about is how our (city) infrastructure would look if we only had pedestrians. There are two good examples of where this happens. On university campuses such as the University of Calgary, Canada pictured immediately below, and in really old cities, where we have only included vehicles by jamming them into small spaces designed initially for pedestrians. The city of Utrecht, The Netherlands is pictured below.



One interesting thing to note is the density of both of those places. Even on a sculpted campus, buildings are close together, since after all who would want to walk father than needed from one to the other? With that kind of density, there’s less need for a car, since there is more variety in a smaller space. I’m not trying to sound too preachy about living in a places that are walk-friendly, but it’s something that I don’t think people give a lot of thought to.

Another interesting thing about pedestrian infrastructure is intersections. In the University of Calgary photo, paths have been created where people tend to walk anyway, since intersections are not dangerous places of conflicting movement as they are with vehicles, and because the shorter distance offered by walking a straight line between their destination have a bigger impact on a pedestrian than on a driver. I would argue that this complex web of paths is more aesthetically pleasing than a gridded street system.

Probably the most immediate reason people avoid living in dense, walkable areas is the cost of living. Yes, rent is higher. Yes, houses are more expensive, but that is just one of many values of cost that should be considered. You are less likely to develop diabetes and be obese when living in a walkable neighbourhood, and you are more likely to walk and cycle, leading to a healthier and more enjoyable life overall, and lowering health care costs. Your transportation costs are lower, especially if you remove the need for a car.

Okay. So now I really sound like an advocate. I guess I am. The evidence is piling up.

3 comments on “Pedestrian is King!”

  1. Hermina Joldersma Reply

    Very nice juxtaposition of two actually very similar pedestrian situations which at first thought seem to have nothing in common: a post-1960s Canadian university campus and a medieval European city. But perhaps some things are not so different after all: the relatively organic growth of urban space. U of C put in sidewalks after it was determined where people actually walked (although building sites were pre-planned of course, it would be interesting to know in how far pedestrian flow is taken into account in actually planning the site of a building). And Utrecht, perhaps, grew just as organically at a time when city planning was hardly the science it is now. Very nice.

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