These streets weren’t made for walking

People often ask me, “Dr. Behooving, why do you want cities with undulating ground planes, like skate parks for pensioners? Why the über bike city? What’s wrong with level ground planes that have been proven to work for pedestrians and cyclists?”

The quote marks are phoney. My interlocutors are rarely so eloquent. Nevertheless, that is the gist of people’s sentiments, seconds before they dismiss me as a nutcase who wants to turn their favourite street into a pump-track.

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My position, broadly, is that streets should be restored to favour their original uses. Streets in nineteenth-century districts that were built for walking, should be completely pedestrianised and any traffic (including bike traffic) be limited to 15 kilometres per hour, the maximum speed of the horse-drawn buggies that those streets were designed for. On the other side of the coin, is suburbia, that we aught to just accept as a driving environment. That way, it will die quicker. Bye bye Detroit.

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I’m interested in the streets we haven’t yet built, particularly on redundant industrial land earmarked for redevelopment. The 1980s saw masterplans drawn up for these sites (former docklands, predominantly) imagining them as pre-automobile districts. Subsequent development booms saw many developed with multilevel car parks with monolithic apartment blocks on top. In the foreground of this image are some examples in Rotterdam.

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An interesting study was conducted by researcher at T.U. Delft in the Netherlands who fitted tracking devices to residents of the apartments pictured above, built on a reclaimed dock just a few hundred meters from Rotterdam’s main shopping district. The researchers found residents of these apartments weren’t leaving via the front doors of their buildings and walking or cycling to nearby shops and eateries. They were leaving via their basement garages and driving to malls in the suburbs. [1]

stefan-van-der-spekMost would say, “naughty residents”. I say, “naughty designers,” if we don’t learn from these examples.

The first thing to learn is that wide footpaths and cycle tracks (as required with all developments in the Netherlands) won’t generate walking and cycling if people have the option of driving. The next thing to learn, is that the idea of the walkable city, while it is being used to rehabilitate old streets that were originally built for walking, is not being used to inform the design of new streets, in urban growth areas. Lenders, developers, buyers, governments: none of them believe it. They all insist on the garaging that, we can see, leads to driving, and little walking/street life.

As a development model, the walkable city is an idea that has not taken root, despite 50 years of promotion. It has had dozens of books to trumpet its virtues. It has the entire town planning profession onside as advocates, plus megastar champions like Jan Gehl and Jane Jacobs. What is more, the pedestrian city exists. It can be explored, loved and studied. Wherever an eighteenth or nineteenth century urban core hasn’t been butchered by car-crazed engineers, you will be able to find an intact example. Yet it hasn’t been taken up as a model for city growth or redevelopment.

If in fifty years time, my ideas about a bicycling city have given rise to real estate hot-spots and have the backing of the planning community, yet lenders still demand basement garaging, I will gladly hang up my boots. And I won’t be too quick to criticise anyone exploring fresh alternatives to the car city if, at that time, it is still the dominant model.


[1] Jeroen van Schaick and Stefan C van der Spek, Urbanism on Track: Application of Tracking Technologies in Urbanism, IOS, 2008.

7 Comments

  1. Luke says:

    For me, probably the best insight of Cycle Space was the point that walkable cities don’t really work. They did once, but not any more. San Giominagni is wonderful, but not a booming city.

    Though the point that drivers can’t see cyclists in the rain is a close second -sorry if I only spot the obvious -when you think about -points.

    Not sure where my (not very brilliant ) insight takes us.

  2. jqr10001 says:

    The point I draw from this post is that it’s hard to adopt the cycling life if you have a car in the garage, and that it is a lot harder for a society to become a cycling society if it has garages with cars in them.

    • Steven says:

      although suburbia is so under-capitalised now, that at least the possibility exists to keep all the streets, but knock down the houses and redevelop each one with 20 apartments with no car parking at all, like a 19th century district.

  3. crank says:

    Oh yeah, look at Southbank/South Melbourne. High density living inside a freeway system. No street frontage, no pedestrians, no cyclists, no life, no social interaction, just cars cars cars honk smell cars. Total fail. A travesty. It could have been so great.

    http://melbournecitycouncil.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/underutilised-poor-urban-design-and.html

    “Ask any resident in South bank or South Yarra and they will tell you that the lack of basic amenity and infrastructure is the main drawback of inner city living south of the Yarra

    “There is no central focus for daily shopping in South Bank The City Council has allowed the Domain Road precinct to deteriorate to the point where it no longer fulfills its intended use.

    “Most notably is the lack of quality delicatessens or small supermarkets. There are numerous seven elevens and a few small convenience stores that provide milk and basics. Residents of South Bank and South Yarra are forced to either travel to South Melbourne or Prahran to buy daily produce South Bank lacks a residential amenity commercial precinct or square. What business there are cater for the office workers not residents. This lack of amenity and planning has an impost and cost on inner city living.”

    • Steven says:

      I love the irony, of residents leaving home in their cars then expecting good local shops.

    • crank says:

      It’s a shame, could have been our bit of New York. Only place I’ve seen that comes close is downtown L.A.

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