In their book “The Pedestrian Revolution,” Simon Breines and William Dean wrote, “A new day is dawning for the pedestrian. Footpower has begun to challenge horsepower. World-wide action against unrestrained automobile use in congested urban centers heralds the arrival of the Pedestrian Revolution.”
Interestingly, this was written in 1974. What fueled the authors’ enthusiasm was a trend that caused more than 200 U.S. cities to close their main streets to motor vehicles in favor of foot traffic. But the pedestrian-mall movement, which began in 1959, was less an uprising against cars and more a desperate attempt by cities to save their fading downtowns from the mid-century flight to suburban malls. The craze was all but over by the late ’70s, and in most cases pedestrian malls only accelerated the decline.
The renewed interest in urban living has reignited the conversation about pedestrian-only streets in downtowns. It is such a satisfying concept: Keep cars in their place and provide zones where pedestrians and human-powered vehicles are free to roam without conflict. It is easy to point to places in Europe that have had pedestrian-only areas in their cities for decades. Times Square recently became a pedestrian mall, which has resulted in less vehicular congestion, increased retail sales, and a significant reduction in pedestrian injuries and deaths.
What we know today is that pedestrian malls can be great places, but they work under a limited number of circumstances: in cities near college campuses where there is a large captive audience without cars; as exclusive shopping areas; or as places where people and cars already fill the available space and something needs to give (the Times Square example comes to mind).
This should not leave us with the impression, however, that we can do nothing about creating better pedestrian environments in our urban areas. In fact, it is imperative that we do so.
Streets have existed since the beginning of cities, long before automobiles became accessible to the masses. In the 100 years of accommodating the car, we’ve done little on behalf of those on foot. The research report “Dangerous by Design,” published by Smart Growth America, provides compelling arguments that we have tipped the scale of design too heavily toward vehicular efficiency and safety to the significant detriment of pedestrians. It notes that, in 2014 (the most recent data available for the 2016 report), 13 people per day died across the country after being struck by a car.
The Indy metro area saw an average 20 deaths per year from 2005 to 2014. All the while, drivers in cars, due to built-in safety features, are becoming less likely to be killed in a crash—a fact that seems to only encourage more reckless and aggressive driving.
The good news is that creating safer pedestrian spaces really comes down to just two relatively simple things: providing an appropriate amount of dedicated and protected pedestrian space and reducing vehicular speed. Consider the numbers: A pedestrian has a 90 percent chance of surviving being struck by a vehicle traveling 20 mph. At just 40 mph, the chances of survival drop to between 50 percent and 10 percent. Many successful pedestrian zones have speed limits of 18 mph.
But speed-limit signs are not enough. People don’t readily drive posted speed limits; they drive the speed at which they feel comfortable. This means it is incumbent on the design of the place to encourage safer speeds. It’s important to note that slower speeds don’t mean we arrive at our destination later. I am sure we have all experienced that crazy driver who went flying by you, weaving between lanes, only to arrive at the next traffic light at the same time you do.
All cities can benefit from a better relationship between motor vehicles and human-powered mobility. But pedestrian malls need not be our only solution. So-called complete streets have as their goal the coexistence of multiple modes of transportation, and usually involve reducing the size of travel lanes to slow speeds and making way for buffered pedestrian and bike ways. Shared spaces, like Monument Circle and Georgia Street, give priority to pedestrians over vehicles and often are designed to be temporarily open to pedestrians only.
U.S. cities that are taking pedestrian safety seriously have committed to being a Vision Zero city. The cities in this network agree to meet the minimum criteria of setting a clear goal of eliminating traffic fatalities and severe injuries; their mayor has publicly, officially committed to Vision Zero; a plan or strategy is in place; and key city departments (including police, transportation and public health) are engaged.
Indianapolis, though not yet in the network, is currently engaged in creating a forward-looking, citywide, pedestrian plan. Look for your opportunity to be part of the discussion.•
Gallagher is an urban designer with Ratio. Send correspondence to TGallagher@ratiodesign.com.