Morning rush hour. You’re stuck in your car, like everyone else, crawling through an endless traffic jam. That’s when you ask yourself: what geniuses planned these roads – or didn’t? Why didn’t they take drivers into account? Why haven’t the roads been widened, and when will someone finally find a solution to this terrible traffic? Later, you’re walking to a meeting not far from your office. It seems near enough, but the street arrangement forces you to take a longer, circuitous route, alongside a busy highway with cars whizzing by. And, when you want to cross the road, you discover that the only pedestrian crossing is far off – and there’s not a speck of shade on the way. That’s when you ask yourself, again: what genius created this mess?
Who gets preference in the city – cars or pedestrians? The history of urban development over the last 200 years is one of ignoring pedestrians for the benefit of traffic. Even before the first automobiles, streets were widened and their design adapted for horse-drawn carriages. Street planning was based upon efficiency, motion and the mobility of vehicles*. Roads were rapidly widened and lengthened and lanes were added, all for the benefit of motor vehicles. But, recent years have seen a shift in this trend, based on a different kind of thinking: with continued population growth and higher standards of living, cars, alone, cannot provide a sustainable solution for long-term quality of life.
If not roads for cars, then what? Understanding that the urban space belongs to and must be returned to people, and that it must be seen from the pedestrian’s point of view. A sustainable city is accessible to people, providing inviting public surroundings that enable people to meet one another and encounter businesses. Streets are the basis for creating such an arena. They must be “open”, with wide sidewalks, free of obstacles or fences, providing a sense of security as well as sheltering shade; comfortable, street furniture must be located where it promotes interaction; street arrangements must make it quick and convenient to access businesses and community services; there should be inviting, accessible public transportation that enables a mix of walking or biking; and, traffic arteries must provide efficient access for vehicles, without dominating the street. Such an approach dictates different rules for the distance between intersections, the planning of human-scale public spaces and mixed-uses. In other words: urban planning must support “walkability”.
Many of the world’s cities are adopting new planning models, based upon these principles. But, what do we do with what already exists? How can we alter current realities and revamp old arrangements, when such changes are often unpopular, to say the least, in the short run? In a flagship project, the Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, took on the challenge of giving back the public space to pedestrians, with the objective of first reducing the area set aside for cars by 50% and, afterwards, prohibiting all private vehicles within the city (except those of its residents). From Autumn 2016, a ban on private vehicles was put in place in an area of 3.3 square kilometers on the right bank of the Seine. By Autumn of 2018, this area will be expanded by an additional kilometer in which only bicycles, buses and taxis will be permitted. “The idea is to go little by little towards a pedestrianization of the city center—one that, when complete, will see it remain open for the cars of local residents, police, for emergency services and deliveries, but not for just anyone. We are taking on completely a significant reduction of automobile traffic, just as other global cities are” says Hidalgo.
Change always requires courage. A change of this scale requires even more. Hidalgo’s plan has encountered – and is still encountering — significant resistance. Yet, as difficult as the current situation seems, in a few years we won’t be able to imagine how we managed otherwise, and the advantages of this new reality will blur our mad memories.
*Guidelines for Planning Urban streets and Pedestrian Movement. The Ministry of Construction and Housing and the Ministry of Transportation. October 2009.