Unseen barriers

I went to Hastings because I had heard about its awesome farmers’ market. I hadn’t realized that the said market was about 30 minutes on foot from the city centre, where the bus dropped me. Didn’t matter, I just set off to walk – sounds like a good idea, on a lovely Saturday morning.

All along the way, walking on Caroline Road, the difference of treatment between pedestrians and traffic was striking. The traffic was using wide, maintained and continuous infrastructures. On the side, the footpath was maybe just over 1m wide, occasionally invaded by the nearby vegetation, and/or covered with leaves or fruit fallen from the street trees. And I should also mention that this infrastructure is to be shared “with care” between pedestrians and bicycle users.

So it is all fine, but if you are blind, you might get whacked in the face by a branch, will need to figure out what the difference of the surface is, and will be surprised by a bike rider you were not expecting. If you are using a mobility aid, you will struggle to progress and the space won’t allow you to go past two people walking side by side in the opposite direction.

The paramount was however the intersection Caroline Rd / Frederick St, which I would qualify of uncrossable. In appearance, there is nothing too special to that intersection, standard design ticking the traffic layout boxes. But when you’re on foot, it’s a different story, as you can see here.

There will be a considerable effort into assessing and retrofitting the inherited infrastructures. But I believe this effort is necessary if we are to support walking and participation of people of all ages and abilities.

 

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Heritage vs car culture

Napier central, Tiffen Park entrance

Napier. A great architectural legacy and the idea that heritage presents a value to the city, to be safeguarded (see Napier City Vision 2015). And in the middle of that, the ongoing complicated love-story with cars.

It reminded me of Wellington’s beautiful Fire Central, also in the central area, at the crossroads of the active Courtenay Place and the seafront, but cut off by endless lanes of traffic. It makes me also think of virtually all town centres in New Zealand, where historic buildings are disfigured by shrill footpath roofing, floor-to-ceiling advertisements and signs on the footpath, yelling at you “2 dollars!” or selling you any kind of service.

Now imagine these amazing buildings in an environment that encourages walking and sojourning, and that puts them in evidence, making them participate in the public space. I think that their value, as assets. would skyrocket. I also bet that vast majorities would support that new status quo. From a transport planning perspective, this would support the cities’ efforts to increase liveability and reduce reliance on cars. I hope councils go in that direction.

So close, so unreachable

A banal message received from a friend, about meeting for dinner:

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The tricky trip is Cambridge-Hamilton East, NZ, 20 km.

Cambridge is a small town (20,000 residents), located near Hamilton, 150,000, the regional hub where you can find a diversity of jobs as well as the main hospital, universities, a museum, theaters or shopping centers. The connection between the two towns is obvious, for work, education, shopping, dining out, you name it. Yet, the bus service runs only 7 times per day, on week days, and the time table is obviously built for school kids. On week-ends, there is only 3 trips Cambridge-Hamilton, 4 trips back.

So if you’ve missed your 7.35 bus, you will be there around 10. And if you want to leave Hamilton after 5.15 pm, well you can’t (this is for the week days, on week-ends it’s 4.15).

Without a car, you will have to beg for a ride, or miss opportunities. I doubt you can even study in Hamilton whilst living in Cambridge, given the early last departures (not to mention the loss of social life). You need a car, and if you can’t drive or can’t afford it you miss out. That is called severance, or barrier effect, or exclusion.

Imagine an efficient public transport link, the kind that would be a real alternative. Running from early in the morning to late in the night, allowing you to get where you need to and come back, and doing it with a satisfying travel time. Imagine a service that is actually more efficient than driving, and that is therefore chosen. Less single-occupancy vehicles on the road, less congestion, less wasted time, less spending on new roads, less spending for the users, less crashes, less deaths and injuries, less severance, more opportunities to access whatever you need or want to access, more participation in the society, better inclusion, better outcomes for all.

This is not an utopian vision. This is what towns around the world do, because it works for the people and for the local and national economies.

The ocean? You sure?

So in theory, you go down St Mary Street, in Auckland, facing the ocean. And at the bottom, you are really near the ocean, and also near the super active Winyard quarter. But, between you and the ocean, flows a mighty highway. And so you arrive at the bottom, and you are welcomed by a sound barrier and an information panel saying Discover Auckland’s Original Foreshore!

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The discovery is quite virtual, to be true. It shows lovely pictures of a past when the said foreshore was used by the locals for walking, sunbathing, navigating or swimming.

I couldn’t help imagine what the coast could look like, today, in the absence of the highway. A coastal promenade immediately came to mind, with active cafes and shops, and in the background some right density living and offices, with public spaces and walkable environments that encourage the access to the promenade. People would probably speak of how great it is to be living in such a pleasant neighborhood and yet be able to be in the CBD in 10 minutes by bicycle. New Plymouth did a great job re-owning its coast, and the success is seen in all the mentions the path gets as the local tourist attraction, but also by the numbers of people enjoying it and the diversity of users.

Now imagine Auckland had that, and then someone suggested building a highway there, right at the foreshore. I don’t know about you, but I would see protests, if that someone was invested with power, or wondering about how on earth you could imagine killing the goose that lays golden eggs. The idea would seem quite extreme, right?

The thing is, the infrastructure has been inherited, and probably accepted as part of the status quo. Maybe even seen as necessary, for the city’s functioning?

Experiences around the world show however that it’s never too late to re-imagine our environments! And that “extreme” or even “crazy” solutions can actually work, and rather well (look at Paris closing its arterials along the Seine, or the general movement of cities planning to ban the car from their centers, totally unimaginable 20 years ago).

To be continued… Fill the blank with your thoughts!

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Imagine what we could do

Imagine if a little side street, in a bustling neighborhood, was indeed treated as… a little side street. It would allow cars to access and park, and provide them with the necessary space, but not more. And with the leftover space? Well we could for instance provide for those who live there, and who could do with a little public space? or with a little green? some urban furniture for kids maybe? or a cafe’s terrace? The environment could also be friendly and accessible for all those who walk through the neighborhood (and maybe even encourage them to come more often, spend more time there, or visit the shops…). These nasty road signs could be gone too, and a continuous sidewalk would replace the existing 18 m (!) crossing.

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Pink strikes back, and leaves all that room to your imagination!

 

Efficiency, you said?

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In Auckland, the $30 million Te Atatu Rd corridor project was designed with the objective to “improve efficiency and safety” for an estimated 38,000 vehicles per day.

Improving for the cars, you say, in a city already choked by traffic? As if it was not bad enough, the design shows:

  1. a total lack of awareness of the pedestrians’ needs – all the pedestrians, including walking aid or wheelchair users, children buggy pushers, or just a fit 20-y-old temporarily on crutches
  2. 0 consideration for the pedestrian design guidelines
  3. a clear vision of who has the priority, on these “intersections”
  4. a carriageway design coming straight from the 60s, with a wide shoulder and a stripped median (approx. 5 m of gauge lost)

Thirty millions. Built to last… And designed so that a future retrofit of the footpaths will require demolishing the existing ones, and putting the carriageway on a well-deserved diet.

It’s pretty tragic.

Dangerous by design

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Pedestrian fatalities are stagnating in US, as they are in NZ. Bridget Burdett, Accessibility Specialist and Principal Researcher at TDG, reminded the fact lately, saying that “whatever we are doing, we are doing it wrong”.

The 2 countries are comparable by a strongly car-oriented environment. In the US, some 4,600 people die every year while walking, struck and killed by a driver. The inequity is strong, with poor communities experiencing comparatively more dangerous environments, relying more on walking as a cheap transport mode, but also having lower rates of insurance coverage, and suffering therefore higher consequences of crashes.

People walk along these roads despite the clear safety risk. This is not user error. Rather, it is a sign that these streets are failing to adequately meet the needs of everyone inĀ  community.

Dangerous by Design 2016 is Smart Growth America’s review of the epidemic of crashes involving pedestrians, in the US, and the cities’ and states’ action.

Without surprise, the recommendation is to (finally) take pedestrians into account, in the planning, design, and redesign. On major arterial roads (NZ has a lot of them, cutting through towns, neighborhoods and communities), they recommend better footpaths, better and safer crossings, and lower speeds.

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