Tipping the balance in favour of pedestrians

It’s perhaps not too coincidental that two organisations celebrating significant birthdays this year are the Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI), marking a century since its foundation, against a slightly more youthful Living Streets, formed 85 years ago as the Pedestrians’ Association.
   
Just as trains transformed the transportation of people and goods at the end of the 19th century, the rise of the privately owned motor car impacted at the beginning of the 20th. In 1900 there were 8,000 cars in Britain, rising to 261,000 by 1930.
   
The founders of the Pedestrians’ Association were responding to the increase in traffic, campaigning for safety measures to protect those on foot and calling for people to be at the heart of the design of our urban areas.
   
In this latter respect, the two organisations have a clear association. The RTPI was formed to ‘advance the study of town-planning, civic design and kindred subjects’ and the issue of accommodating motor traffic could not have been lost on its early members.
   
In the same year the RTPI was founded, Le Corbusier designed his Plan Voisin. His vision was of spacious parks and promenades ‘remote from the busy hum of the autostrada’, declaring, ‘the street as we know it will cease to exist.’

A space for both car and person
Modernism followed this lead and looked for an accommodation for both car and person. The imprint is still evident in developments such as the Barbican in London and its ambition to elevate pedestrians on pathways above the traffic.
   
One consequence of the focus on traffic has been to side-line walking and active travel, creating corridors for cars rather than streets for people. In the hierarchy of road-users, the pedestrian has long been at the bottom of the pile, but many planners, developers and local authorities have come to acknowledge that our car‑centric culture has left a legacy of fractured communities and empty high streets.

In contrast to Le Corbusier’s order, the New Urbanist movement supports a vernacular form of development with environmental scientist and former government scientific advisor, Sir David King, making the case for medieval towns and Brazilian favelas serving as paradigms of better urban living.

He argues: “Infrastructure is seen as separate units. We must, in the future, see cities as networks of systems.”

Doing it on foot
The increasing physical and human density of our towns and cities will inevitably make different demands on their structure and design. King suggests environmental sustainability needs will only be met by returning to models of urban development, where services and social infrastructure are within a walkable distance and cites Cambridge as an example of a city where people evidently walk more as a result of changes to the city centre.
   
At the heart of a sustainable public realm strategy is the importance of seeing our streets as places, not simply corridors for movements. Academics suggest ‘the five minute walk’ rule – being able to meet fundamental needs such living, working and shopping within a five minute walk from home – offers a framework for the design of our communities. Given that a quarter of British households have no access to a car, access to essential services is a vital factor.
   
Peoples’ decision whether to walk is not influenced by distance alone, but by the quality of their walking experience. Street cleaning has been shown to be a better predictor of overall satisfaction with a council, than all other services put together.
   
The Department of Communities and Local Government found that people considered street and pavement repairs as the thing that ‘most needs improving’, above crime or health services.

A nicer place to walk
While changing the hierarchy of our transport modes might demand a wider cultural shift, making our urban areas safe and attractive for walking can often be achieved with simple measures and moderate infrastructure interventions.
   
Street clutter – superfluous items of street furniture, traffic signs, litter bins, guard railing, bollards – is not only often unsightly, but it can also make it difficult for pedestrians to navigate, particularly for people with mobility issues or sight impairment.
   
A survey carried out by members of Guide Dogs in 2012 found A-boards were the most commonly encountered obstacle on the pavement with almost 40 per cent of high streets scattered with unregulated boards, often duplicating the advertising in shop windows. Licensing can be effective in ensuring A-boards are not an obstruction or potential danger for pedestrians. 
   
The Department of Transport’s Traffic Advisory Leaflet (TAL) issues in January 2013, Reducing sign clutter, gives practical advice. In the Cut in south London, bins, flower boxes and ash trays are all accommodated onto a single lamp post, so pavements are left clear. Of course some street furniture is useful or necessary. As well as providing somewhere for people to sit and – hopefully – enjoy a public space, as our population ages, the provision of benches or seating is becoming an essential element of street design. Age UK suggests that ‘age-friendly’ neighbourhoods may be the key factor that enables someone to continue living in their own home, rather than going into residential care, not only better for individuals, but also more cost effective.
   
Widening the footway and the creation of shared surfaces gives pedestrians greater priority and can be complemented by traffic management measures. Reducing traffics speeds to 20 mph in the place where we live, work, shop and go to school, that is areas with high numbers of people on foot, reduces the incidence of injury and fatalities and makes our streets feel safer to walk.

Crossing roads
Originally designed to guide pedestrians to safe crossing points, badly placed guard rail often interferes with pedestrian desire lines and actually make crossing roads more dangerous by corralling them onto traffic islands in the midst of traffic. Guard railing can also be a signal for drivers to go faster, as the pedestrians are fenced in on the pavement.

As we live increasingly sedentary lives, encouraging people to walk and cycle more is not just an issue for transport and town planners, but also of public health. Guidance issued by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) in 2013 highlighted the need for investment in public realm and to create well sign posted, walkable town and city centres to encourage people to walk for short trips.
   
A range of improvements in Coventry city centre, including new pedestrian areas, a new civic square, clearer signage and better placement of street furniture, were credited with a 24 per cent rise in footfall in the town centre on Saturdays.  Not only that, but pedestrians are bigger spenders. In London town centres in 2011, walkers spent £147 per month more than those people travelling by car.
   
So given that encouraging walking is good for public health, good for the environment and good for local economies, how can ‘town-planning and civic design’ encourage us all to ditch four wheels in favour of feet?
   
Pavements are the one public service that we all use. Local authority budgets continue to be under pressure, but a Freedom of Information request by Guide Dogs found that local councils had spent over £106million in compensation claims over a four year period due to people tripping and falling over on poorly maintained footways.
   
The economic case for maintenance and investment is quite clear, but involving local people is key to implementing successful projects. Living Streets run Community Street Audits which identify the elements which form barriers to walking and design simple, cost effective solutions. By designing for people, our high streets and town centres are not just for shopping, but function as public spaces offering civic facilities, opportunities for work and leisure, where we can socialise, be active and communities can thrive.

Further information
www.livingstreets.org.uk

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