Why not a department for pedestrians?

People must come first in cities, but our current focus is the opposite.

Moving vehicles around our cities efficiently seems to remain the primary objective of transport planning in Australia, and it continues to ruin our cities.

When we walk, we are programmed to maximise efficiency of movement, unless we are exercising towards a healthy outcome. We abhor walking backwards to go forwards. Walking the straightest line to our destination is called a desire line.  These are most evident in parks and gardens, and are often off the designated path.  The desire lines turn into what are termed “goat tracks” and are usually the result of poor design and planning.  They are where more people walk, naturally and instinctively.

Many cities identify their good bits – the visually appealing sites, natural features, built heritage, etc – and preserve these for their postcard views, for protection or “enhancement”. However, the fine grain of daily city life competes with the overall “love” for a place, with interconnected and often poorly planned streets and public spaces rarely recognised as having humanistic importance.

I’m talking about widths of footpaths, priority and timing of traffic signals to cross the street, other pedestrian crossings, slowing of traffic, bike share and parking, street trees for shade, equal and inclusive access for all, quality paving, welcoming lighting, seating, bins and other essential elements of a well-designed domain for the public.

Despite hero places such as Sydney’s glorious harbour, Adelaide’s Hills, Melbourne’s ordered grid, Canberra’s green belts and Hobart’s breathtaking Mt Wellington, the reality of the grit and grain of a place can often be quite different – horrible places that people dislike, ugly and unattractive, unsafe and dysfunctional, or a combination of all of these things. The forgotten access.

As architect Jan Gehl says:

“We have a department for roads, why not a department for pedestrians?”

He has a point.

Human factors play a large role in balancing the technical needs of a city – its roads, streets, drainage, transport, power, communications and water usually have priority over everything else, yet the very element cities depend on is people, for life and vitality.

Who hasn’t experienced the frustration of wanting to walk to the other side of the street, yet finding their route obstructed by by-laws, line markings, barriers, police issuing jaywalking fines, traffic and other people-unfriendly factors?

Strategies where cities put people first and inspire behaviour change – such as encouraging walking further than from the car park to the office – would be a good place to start making a change.

Accident statistics are often cited as a reason to “improve” roads to reduce the road toll, and sometimes pedestrian “improvements” are aimed genuinely at improving safety for people.  But what isn’t often addressed are the other factors – the consuming factors – to make places desirable, accessible and happy.

One of the greatest challenges is making the decision to make our cities places for walking first, driving second.  Communities are largely built on good walkability, with social, economic and environmental interactions creating the successful spaces we desire and protect.

In Adelaide, we are lucky to have a relatively flat city that means it is easy to walk longer distances at a comfortable walking, rolling, pushing or pulling pace. But the pedestrian planning often fails to make it easy.

Let’s take the tram stop in Victoria Square, one of our most aspirational city spaces.  The tram stop is anchored on the southern side of the intersection with Grote Street, with pedestrian access “controlled” via the traffic signals, which in turn are prioritised for cars.  This is the only formal access to the tram stop for pedestrians.

Yet the route to the Central Markets is counter-intuitive, requiring a northerly walk back to the intersection, crossing and heading south towards the main entry, using the footpath past the Hilton Hotel.

Anecdotal observations suggest that once people alight from the tram and the tram moves away, they instinctively step off the platform and walk through the traffic, avoiding the intersection and its pesky traffic signals, heading straight for the Central Market’s arcade entry.  Job done, that’s where I am going – bugger this traffic; bugger waiting for the pedestrian crossing.

So how can we solve this? Not easily, as perhaps the original design considered other movements more critical, and a southern crossing from the tram stop was not possible, desirable nor feasible with the current road layout and traffic lane design. However, the decision to place the stop at the intersection without pedestrian data analysis, modelling, scenario testing and design has locked in an awkward reality – perhaps more people are accessing the Central Market as opposed to other areas of Victoria Square, and now the route isn’t direct nor desirable, so people take more risks to access/alight the platform.

Problems like this then start to be addressed with silly solutions – fences, barriers, signs, bollards – rather than tackling the fundamental issue of “line of sight” to where people want to go.

A better method is to think about how people use our streets and spaces, and focus on improved modelling, scenarios, observations and calculations to design a better and more flexible result.  Setting the problem wider is a far better approach than solving one that is narrow and assumptive and limited in view.

Asking the community how they use their city is one thing, proving and analysing the evidence is another, and then coming up with more informed solutions is the outcome.

Creating well-designed spaces, walking strategies, way-finding signage and other initiatives are critical components of shaping our cities.  Making them functional, easy to use and simple to navigate is part-design, part-science, part-art, part-guesswork, part-listening and a lot of watching.

So next time you are here and want to go there, consider the opportunities as well as the realities and help the city broaden the conversation around creating better places for people.

Daniel Bennett is a registered landscape architect. He is currently the city design and transport strategy manager for Adelaide City Council and is a national board member and vice-president of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects.

This article was originally published in Adelaide’s Indaily 28 April, 2015 http://indaily.com.au/design/2015/04/28/why-not-a-department-for-pedestrians/

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