email of the week: thinking pedestrian thoughts

DSCF5316 Is it useful to talk about "pedestrians" as a group the way we often talk about cyclists or transit riders?  All these category terms are problematic, as I discussed here.  Riordan Frost of Minnesota 2020 asks:

A recent article in a local paper and its connection to one of your previous blog posts has inspired me to write to you. The article is “Thinking Pedestrian Thoughts”, and it covers the recent adoption of a ‘pedestrian plan’ by Edina, which is an inner-ring suburb of the Twin Cities [of Minneapolis and St. Paul]. One of the points made in the article is that people don’t really advocate for themselves as pedestrians. This made me think of a post that you wrote back in October, which was entitled “should I call myself a ‘transit-rider’?” and discussed labels given to people using certain modes of transportation. In the post, you quote Michael Druker, who advocates for switching from ‘cyclist’ to ‘people cycling’ and from ‘pedestrian’ to ‘people walking’.

You agreed with him, but pointed out that these new terms were cumbersome, and you would probably still opt for the shorter terms in your writing. I write blogs and articles for MN2020, and I feel the same way. I understand the importance of what language we choose, and I try to be conscious of it in my writing, but I have a need for brevity and I have an editor. There is a more significant question apart from brevity, however: how do we avoid labels (which may carry negative connotations and/or stereotypes) while advocating for improvements of certain modes? …

Is it possible to cut down on lumping people into categories and still have effective advocacy for certain modes, like better crosswalks or more bike lanes? The cycling community is pretty well established in the blogosphere, which sometimes contributes to their ["cyclist"] label and its connotations, but pedestrians have no blogs or personalities specifically tailored to them – mostly because we are … all pedestrians at some point in the day, and there is nothing terribly distinctive about walking. I n a perfect world, we would just design our environments for all modes of transportation that people use, with people (not cyclists vs. motorists vs. pedestrians) in mind.   This doesn’t seem terribly viable, however.  What are your thoughts on this?

I think that the potential for organized activism and fellow-feeling is easier among a group of people who all wield the same tool, because tools are such powerful symbols.  Think about the role of the hammer and sickle — archetypal tools of manufacturing and agriculture, respectively — in the imagery of Soviet communism, for example.

The possession of the tool, and the knowledge of how to use it, becomes a feature by which a group defines itself and sets itself in opposition to other interests.

If you don't think this still happens, look at all the clubs and forums for people who own and cherish a particular tool — a Linux-powered computer, say, or a certain musical instrument.  If you read an online forum about such possessions, you'll see the practical work of exchanging troubleshooting tips also builds a community in which people love hearing each other's stories about life with the cherished tool.

So this is another thing that's going on behind the obsessive attachment to transit technologies.  People who love aerial gondolas or whatever can now network worldwide with every city that runs one, compare notes about each other's problems and achievements, and thus form a global community based on love of that particular tool.  Psychologically, it's just like a club of guys who all own a particular kind of car, or computer, or electric guitar, or whatever.

Pedestrians don't have that.  So I doubt we'll ever see a pedestrians-rights movement that has anything like the shape and force of the cycling movement.  Nor do we need to, really, because the best urban planning thought today is all about the primacy of the pedestrian. 

Ultimately, the strongest case for "pedestrian rights" is that we are all pedestrians.  Even the guy who loves his Porsche has to walk across parking lots, and can thus see the value of having protected paths between rows of cars instead of having to walk in the lot's roadways where a car can back into you.  Even he has a sense of what makes a shopping center or major downtown pleasant or unpleasant to walk in.  Maybe he's even broken down on the freeway and thus experienced what those places are like when you're out of your car.  So it's not hard to make anyone understand a pedestrian issue on analogy to the walking that everyone has to do.  That's how you win these arguments, I think.

Transit’s Role in “Sprawl Repair”

Duany Plater-Zyberk, one of the leading planning firms associated with New Urbanism, is thinking about “sprawl repair,” a process by which utterly car-dependent landscapes could be transformed into something more walkable, and thus more resilient.  Galina Tachieva of DPZ has an article explaining the concept at Planetizen.  Continue Reading →

New York’s Broadway: Why Do the Cab Drivers Hate It?

New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan is here in Sydney, and spoke last night at the City of Sydney’s CityTalks series, hosted as always by Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore.  Sadik-Khan gave her standard presentation on her work in New York, with emphasis on the conversion of traffic and parking space to pedestrian and park spaces.  She also highlighted the new Bus Rapid Transit project, called Select Bus Service, clearly distinguishing between SBS projects that are still compromised, such as First/Second Avenue and Fordham Road, and those that really will be fully exclusive-lane and thus highly reliable, such as the 34th Street line now under development. Continue Reading →

Basics: The Spacing of Stops and Stations

The unglamorous but essential struggle over the spacing of consecutive stops or stations on a transit line is an area where there’s a huge difference in practice between North American and Australian agencies, for reasons that have never been explained to me as anything other than a difference in bureaucratic habit.  In Australia, and in most parts of Europe that I’ve observed, local-stop services generally stop every 400m (1/4 mile, 1320 feet).  Some North American agencies stop as frequently as every 100m (about 330 ft). Continue Reading → and the Lure of the Single “Score”

[Note: This post is from 2010 and has not been updated to reflect more recent developments, including the acquisition of WalkScore by Redfin.]

The Conservative Planner [blog site no longer active] has a thoughtful attack on‘s methodology for calculating a simple “walkability score” for any neighborhood in America.  He’s found several examples where WalkScore has given a high score to a place that’s clearly hostile to pedestrians when viewed on the ground.  Continue Reading →

Quote of the Week: Manhattan as “Stockyard”

[T]he comforts of the [Manhattan’s] rich still depend on the abundance of its poor, the municipal wealth and well-being as unevenly distributed as in the good old days of the Gilded Age. When seen at a height or a distance, from across the Hudson River or from the roof of Rockefeller Center, Manhattan meets the definitions of the sublime. At ground level Manhattan is a stockyard, the narrow streets littered with debris and laid out in the manner of cattle chutes, the tenements and storefronts uniformly fitted to fit the framework of a factory or a warehouse.

Lewis Lapham, “City Light”, Lapham’s Quarterly, 7 October 2010 Continue Reading →

Canberra: A Walk to the Office

In Canberra, I recently stayed at the brand-new Aria Hotel, and had occasion to walk next door to the offices of the ABC [Australian Broadcasting Corporation] to do an interview.  Like most people in a hurry, I took the most direct way.  The resulting 200m walk was so funny I thought I’d let the photos speak for themselves.

P9160039 Continue Reading →

On Pedestrian Malls: Look to Australia

Why are pedestrian streets in commercial areas so common and successful in Europe, but not in North America?

A while back, a reader emailed me to ask this.  He observed that even in Vancouver, it’s hard to get a pedestrian mall going:

And why does a downtown core as densely populated as Vancouver only have one temporary pedestrian area (part of Granville Street)? And could Vancouver make the main shopping street (Robson Street) a pedestrian corridor like many UK towns and cities do (such as Birmingham, Glasgow, Reading, Bournemouth, and many more)?

I note you commented on Price Tags about Granville Mall earlier this year, and Price Tags has a recent article on the removal of a pedestrian area in Raleigh, North Carolina. Have you any further thoughts on these issues?

Continue Reading →