Stop Driving Us Crazy: More Walkable Cities Needed

Question: When did you last walk through the center of your city or went shopping without 4 wheels below your feet? ‘Yesterday’ or ‘this morning’ most Germans, French or Spanish might say. ‘Long time ago’ or ‘almost never’ is likely to be the answer in sub-urbanized countries, such as New Zealand. Why? Because only cities built before the era of the automobile (most in Europe) are walkable. As partner blogger Pankaj points out in a recent post, walkability is a growing concern in our cities. In his view, “a city that doesn’t provide appropriate pedestrian infrastructure to its dwellers is sending a strong message of insecurity and unsafe streets – streets that are increasingly being built for cars and not for people. And this is disheartening, because real joy of a city is always experienced on foot (it’s sights, smells, sounds, soaking in the activity).”

And further: “There is a common consensus that walkability needs to be improved in the cities, and streets need to be designed in a way that enhances and encourages people coming out on streets as social places, rather than a place to quickly pass by.” Having attended a conference on urban sustainability and mobility in Delhi, India, some of the suggestions to make cities more walkable he heard include to discourage people to take their cars by increasing parking fees, remove parking spaces in front of Metro train stations, build a robust “Last mile connectivity” infrastructure, reduce the time taken to travel using public transport than cars and to promote an “ActiveEdge” program – activities planned alongside the sidewalks vendors/shops/art etc.

For him, the main culprits are car makers (refusing to participate in enhancing sustainable urban mobility) and unsustainable behavior patterns. While car makers business model only allows for little maneuvering and ‘sustainabilization’, the latter – behavior changes – are key to making cities more walkable and a more pleasant experience, as he concludes.

Read his full post here.

Reflecting on my own experience, the issue of urban walkability only really appeared when we moved to Hamilton and later Wellington, New Zealand. Growing up in a relatively compact German city, all I needed to do to get things done was to grab my bicycle and get going. The same goes for later places like Barcelona or Girona in Catalonia; even our time in London went smoothly car-if not stress-free. Most New Zealand towns, on the other hand, are a real challenge to navigate without a car, most of them built in, well let’s call it ‘the typical American sub-urban style’. Even Wellington, easily the most walkable city in Kiwiland, has Te Aro, its center, criss-crossed with busy roads, full of traffic and no limits to contamination. While buses work reasonably well, they only go that far and are expensive, e.g. offering no discount for students.

With regard to Asian cities, on which Pankaj reports, I can only assume that socio-cultural factors play a big role, for example that owning a car represents a certain status or class. Especially in developing countries, this is unlikely to change any time soon. In the ‘saturated West’, where anything eco has become hip and mainstream, people will be more likely to switch to their feet and cycles whenever possible. In the end, mutual effort is needed to make our cities more walkable, breathable, liveable. Politicians, urban planners, car makers, social pressure groups and the culture industries (media, TV, film,…) all form part of the solution. Car makers, for instance, while there is no point in blaming them for selling cars – that’s what they do – need to invest in future technologies, make cars more human- and eco-friendly and transport systems smarter. Politicians and urban planners need to keep the long-term implications of urban infrastructure in mind and should not succumb easily to extensive lobbying for more roads rather than better. Social groups need to challenge and pressure the two first to make sure their mid- and long-term sustainable urban vision stays on track but also encourage their members and co-citizens to use the public transport options, walking and cycling paths available. Last but not least, it is up to the cultural industries to alter socio-cultural convictions, for example by showing that life without a car is possible, healthy and cool.

Picture credit: Bilder kostenlos, creative commons

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