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ESSAYS AND OPINION


The Case for Pedestrianisation
Shannon Medlock

The proper function and role of city streets and urban spaces is a much misunderstood concept. Cities are composed of two types of domains. The first is the private domain which comprises such spaces as homes and offices which are accessed by only a small, limited number of people. The second is the public domain, composed of streets, squares, parks and retail businesses which can be accessed by anyone and everyone. Within cities, the public domain is most commonly available in the form of streets. Streets are essentially open, often linear spaces in which a variety of activities can take place. One of the most common uses for streets is one of transportation. But when properly designed, streets serve a myriad of other purposes as well, such as a social gathering place where friends and neighbors meet and mingle, a place of commerce where people shop and engage in transactions, a place of recreation where children play, a place of relaxation and leisure where people stroll and soak in the environment or sit on benches and side walk cafes, and so forth. Ideally, streets should constitute an extension of people's living space: places where everyone can use and enjoy them at their leisure.

Unfortunately, however, city streets throughout much of the world are dominated by automobiles whose presence largely negates the possibility of streets being used for any purpose other than that of transportation. People have been relegated to small areas, sidewalks on the sides of streets, while automobiles consume the vast majority of the central portion of the thoroughfare. Streets are no longer places where children play, where old men and women sit on benches gossiping or partaking in a game of chess, where Sunday shoppers idle and stroll, or any other of a vast number of human uses or activities. They have become places where massive hulks of steel hurl themselves past at high speeds. Most streets in the modern city have been stripped of any or all humanistic qualities and have become brutal, barren places intended only for transport.

One might argue that the need to use streets for the speed and efficiency of
transport is superior to any other consideration. While this may certainly be true in low density, or mid-density suburban and urban areas, where the automobile is the primary form of transport, this argument falls flat on its face in highly densely populated urban areas where walking and mass transit are the primary forms of movement and automobiles are a far distant secondary form of transport at best. In much of New York City, and in large sections of many other North American cities such as Boston, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Washington, San Francisco, Toronto, Chicago and Montreal, and in most cities in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America, large percentages of people do not own automobiles and, even if they do, rarely use them on a very regular basis. Residents of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Barcelona, or Tokyo walk to the grocery store, walk to school, walk to the pharmacy, walk to the deli, walk to a friend's house, walk to the subway station and so forth. In urban areas of the highest density, walking is the primary form of transit while even mass transit is used much less often, mostly to commute to work. In these areas, the presence of automobiles on streets greatly reduces the mobility of pedestrians as they are continually stopped and must wait at intersections while autos pass. Just one stop light by itself can turn what should be a five minute walk to the subway station into a seven or even eight minute walk. Thus, automobiles diminish the practicality and utility of other forms of transport that are used much more often in high density urban areas. The greater the presence of automobiles, the greater it diminishes the utility of other forms of transport. Therefore, the improvement in overall transport by the presence of automobiles is highly questionable at best.

Aside from providing little if any increase in the overall efficiency of transport, when one considers all of the negative externalities and costs that the presence of automobiles project, it becomes quite clear that automobiles are a parasite upon cities, sucking it dry of life, of comfort, of beauty and of practicality. The presence of automobiles within cities degrades it's aesthetics, it excludes non-transport activities in the public domain, it increases crime, it emits air pollution and noise pollution, it consumes the vast majority of space within the public domain, it is an impediment to other forms of transit, it is a great public safety threat and it is enormously costly. Each of these will be examined in turn.

Automobiles degrade the aesthetic qualities of the public domain

The public domain should be a beautiful, enriching environment just as we prefer in the private domain, such as our homes and workplaces. We decorate and furnish our homes to attain a more pleasant and enjoyable living environment. It stands to reason that people would prefer the same in the public domain. We don't litter our homes with trash, or fill our walls with scribble. Why then should such a state of affairs persist in the public domain?

Automobiles degrade the visual and aesthetic quality of the urban environment to a much greater extent than simple graffiti or a bit of litter. First, the central portion of the street is often banal black asphalt. Second, the stop lights and all of the various clutter of signs on the sidewalks is quite unattractive. Third, many automobiles themselves are often unattractive. Fourth, the exhaust and pollution creates a thin layer of soot on the surrounding buildings. And lastly, the auto thoroughfare itself precludes the possibility of any landscaping, trees, street furniture, or any other positive additions that can be made to pedestrianised streets. The difference between a pedestrianised street and an automotive street would be equivalent to painting your hard wood floors coal black, taking out all of the plants in your house, placing little metal poles all around the house, sprinkling your walls with soot, and replacing all of your furnishing with metalised versions.

The presence of automobiles excludes non-transport related activities

As was noted previously, automobiles take up a significant amount of space which excludes the possibility for people to engage in a variety of activities in the public domain. People, unlike automobiles, do not take up a lot of space. There might be cafes on both sides of the street, benches, kiosks and vendors, trees and landscaping, plenty of room for people to walk, and the street would still be quite very narrow by traffic engineer standards (essentially anything less than 30 feet wide). When automobiles are removed from a street, an incredible amount of space is opened up. In Boulder, Colorado, the Pearl Street Mall is a pedestrian-only thoroughfare traversing downtown and the University of Colorado campus area which is about a half-mile in length. The street is not very wide at all by auto standards, perhaps 50 feet in width, yet it supports an incredible array of activities. There are street performers and buskers with large crowds gathered around them, vendors and kiosks, benches, outdoor cafes, there are trees and landscaping, and all the while there is more than plenty of space left over for people to walk, window shop, stop and socialize, or what have you. This is such a rare treat in North America that this street is actually a tourist attraction and hordes of people from Denver flock to this street on the weekends. Likewise, people have been flocking to Venice from all over the world for decades to experience the pleasures that a car-free city produces.

Automobiles increase crime

It is well established in the annals of criminology that people are many times less likely to commit a crime when others are around in the immediate area. A thug is emboldened to mug a person, to rob a store, to assault a person, or any other criminal activity, when the surrounding area is desolate and devoid of people. This is why so many crimes occur at night because less people are out and about. Many of the most high crime areas in the US, whether Southeast Washington, DC, sections of North Philadelphia, Camden, NJ, Gary IN, Detroit, or St. Louis, are desolate areas devoid of any life and any activity. It stands to reason that anything which increases the amount of people on the streets, the amount of liveliness, the amount of activity, would result in lower crime rates.

As was noted previously, the extrication of automobiles from streets opens
up a vast amount of space that can be used for leisurely, recreational and
commercial activities. People who would otherwise only be on a street were it for transportational purposes, are induce to spending time on the street for other reasons, whether they be street vendors, children playing, old men and women sitting on benches, sidewalk cafes, solicitors, buskers, and so forth. The presence of these elements greatly increases the vitality and liveliness of the street which has the benefit of decreasing the likelihood of crime within the area.

Automobiles cause noise and air pollution

Automobiles emit a massive amount of negative externalities upon their surrounding areas. Two of the most common complaints that one hears about cities are air pollution and noise pollution which are chiefly caused by automobiles. In large, auto-dominated cities such as Mexico City, Denver, Beijing, and Los Angeles, air pollution caused by auto emissions is a serious environmental problem.

Noise pollution caused primarily by autos is also a great detraction of urban life. In New York or any other large city, the hum of automobiles is incessant and honking horns, car alarms, ambulance sirens, and overly loud motors such as motorcycles or large trucks destroy any semblance of peace and tranquility. It is constant noise aggravation 24 hours a day. One of the amazing things about Venice, which completely lacks automobiles, is the almost eerie quietude that pervades the city. Here is a place that has a population density that is about the same as Manhattan, with lots of people on the streets and lots of activity, yet one could easily mistake themselves to be standing in a isolated forest or mountain top. Even the Piazza San Marco, which usually has more than one thousand people in its vicinity, is still largely quiet and peaceful. The general feeling of tranquility that persists throughout Venice is an enormous improvement in the quality of life compared to noisy auto cities and it is derived almost entirely from the lack of automobiles. Is is not inherently required that cities are loud, chaotic and stressful. It was only the introduction of automobiles that made them such.

Automobiles impede other forms of transit

Densely populated urban areas are characterized by a lack of space. With such a massive concentration of people in such a small area, space is extremely limited and valuable, and the space requirements necessary for automobiles are simply nonexistant. Yet, in most of these areas throughout the world, automobiles consume much of the street space, which diminishes the function and utility of other, more widely used, or potentially useful, forms of transit such as mass transit, walking and bicycles. As was noted in the introduction, automobiles are a great disruption to pedestrian flow and walking is a primary form of transit in dense urban neighbourhoods. The presence of automobiles also limits the practicality of bicycle transit and mass transit.

Bicycles are a very cheap, efficient, clean and easy form of transit in the right environment. In just about every Japanese city, bicycles are used on a regular basis by a large percentage of people. The reason being is that the streets in Japan are almost universally narrow, a form which is not conducive to automobiles. Although automobiles are permitted to pass through such streets, their presence is minimal, creating an accommodating environment for other forms of transit, especially bicycles. In the wrong sort of environment, usually one characterized by wide avenues with large amounts of vehicles, such as most of Manhattan, bicycles are practically non-existent. It is just simply too stressful and dangerous to ride a bike in such an environment.

The elimination of the presence of automobiles would also allow for the easy adoption of various forms of mass transit such as street cars, light rail and high speed bus lanes as the right of way along streets would be free of cars. While these forms of mass transit produce some of the negative externalities and disadvantages that autos produce, in comparison, the extent of this is minimal and sometimes even negligible. Also, contrary to automobiles, mass transit is a necessary and key form of transit for dense urban neighbourhoods. Not all cities and towns have or can afford subways or heavy rail, and street cars and high speed buses are an adequate and cheap alternative.

Automobiles are a public safety threat

Every year in the United States, five thousand people are killed by automobiles and many more are injured. In many suburban counties throughout the US, more people are killed by automobiles than by homicides. In the largest cities with the most pedestrians, the very places where people are less likely to own or use cars, the rate is much higher. In New York City, 250 people are killed by autos each year and 13,000 people are injured by autos. The fact of the matter is that automobiles are a tremendous public safety threat to urban dwellers, a threat on par or even greater than crime.

Pedestrianisation is cheap

The construction and maintenance of roads designed for automobile use is enormously expensive. The roads must be continually maintained; snow plows and salt trucks are expensive; the streetlights and all of the various signs are expensive; and the asphalt and paint is quite expensive as well. In many communities throughout America, expenditures on roads consumes the majority of the city budget. Pedestrianisation dispenses with many of these expenses. One rarely, if ever, sees construction crews working on the streets in pedestrianised centers of European cities. Automobiles are a drain on city coffers.

Automobiles are an enormous bane upon cities and urban living that severely detracts from the quality of life and the urban economy. High concentrations of people and automobiles just simply do not go together without adverse consequences. Automobiles are essential to low density suburbs and rural areas, but in high density urban areas, they cause far more harm than good. Yet despite the fact that these consequences are easily noticeable, the automobile has continued to be treated as king and anything other than uncompromising devotion to it is treated as heresy. It is time that we should question the relationship between automobiles and cities.

Shannon Medlock is an entrepreneur and urbanist. He lives in New York.

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