Pedestrians Are Taking Back the Streets

They are doing it in New York, and should be doing it everywhere.

really crowded sidewalk in New York
A really crowded sidewalk in New York.

Grant Faint/ Getty Images

New York City has just added 19 feet of sidewalk to a stretch of 8th Avenue, a surprising reversal of a hundred years of taking sidewalks and stoops away to make more room for cars; have a look at our post comparing streets of New York from before and after cars took over.

The last time I was in New York City, just before the pandemic hit, I was shocked at how crowded the sidewalks were, how everyone was squished under construction scaffolding when there was no construction happening, and how I couldn't use the bike lane because it was full of people walking. I came home and wrote that it's time to take back the streets and make our sidewalks grand again.

Mode share 8th Avenue

New York City DOT

The numbers certainly justify the change, and would probably justify pulling out traffic lanes all over the city. Eighty-eight percent of the people using the street got only 30% of the space.

8th Avenue Before
8th Avenue Before.

New York City DOT

Before the transformation, there were five lanes of traffic and the bike lane was next to the sidewalk, where it became a de facto widening of the sidewalk.

8th Avenue After
8th Avenue After.

New York City DOT

The widening of the sidewalk is wonderful, but the moving of the bike lane to the other side of the planter and buffer space is interesting; with the explosion of e-bikes and electric micromobility, there have been many complaints about interactions with pedestrians, leading to an e-bikelash and worries that the e-bike revolution is in trouble.

The timing of all of this is appropriate because there has been a walking renaissance. Many people started walking more during the pandemic, and apparently have kept doing it. According to the Economist, this is also happening in Britain, once a nation of walkers.

"Pavements used to be full of walkers, sometimes travelling far. In 'David Copperfield', Charles Dickens’s hero walks from central London to Highgate—a distance of 7km (4.5 miles) ending in a nasty hill—to see if his friend is at home. Public transport and cars made everyone lazy, the well-to-do most of all. In 2002 people in the top household-income quintile made an average of 219 walking journeys a year, according to the National Travel Survey. They drove almost three times as much."

The pandemic increased the number of walking trips from 26% to 31% during the pandemic while all other forms of travel declined. More middle-class and wealthy people were walking too; historically, many who walked long distances couldn't afford alternatives. Cycling, which boomed during the pandemic, has fallen back: "In 2021 the average person travelled 89km by bike, only 1.5km more than in 2019; walking was up by 9km."

Every Low Traffic Neighborhood (LTN) that was created during the pandemic to create safer places to walk and bike is under attack by the drivists—the term for people who yell at cyclists and pedestrians—but many are being retained, as politicians listen to what are being called the "silent majority" of middle-class pedestrians.

vests on walkers
Flaneurs wearing Hi Viz in Paris.

Jonathan Fertig, after reading a Treehugger article about dressing pedestrians for walking

Paris, the home of the flaneur, has also seen a resurgence in walking. Mayor Anne Hidalgo introduced programs like "Paris piéton"Paris for pedestrians—and has been promoting Professor Carlos Moreno's idea of the 15-minute city, where you can get everything you need within a short walk or cycle. According to Quartz, this is how you build a walkable city:

"Lowered speed limits, reduced hours for older vehicles in the center, fewer available parking spaces, dogged pro-bike campaigns, and, crucially, extensive cycle paths and programs, discourage many from getting behind the wheel. Fewer cars on the road mean reduced pollution, quieter streets, and room for more compact modes of mobility, like walking, cycling, and public transportation."
Driver going down sidewalk of Milan
I get out of the way as driver comes down sidewalk in Milan.

Lloyd Alter

Even Milan, a city I found to have impassable sidewalks because cars were just everywhere, even driving down sidewalks has the deputy mayor telling the Guardian: "We worked for years to reduce car use. If everybody drives a car, there is no space for people, there is no space to move, there is no space for commercial activities outside the shops."

sidewalk repairs in Toronto
Really? This is how we're repairing sidewalks on a busy street?? A block away from a school and daycare???.

Emma Alter

Where I live in Toronto, Canada, there have been significant improvements in the cycling infrastructure during the pandemic, but as my daughter points out, the city continues to ignore pedestrians, even as they fix the sidewalks. Pedestrians continue to be killed even while walking on sidewalks, and Vision Zero remains a fantasy.

Jessica Spieker, who founded Friends and Families for Safe Streets after nearly being killed by a driver, writes in the Star about the need for Vision Zero and complete streets that are safer for people walking:

"Complete streets save lives by creating safe, dedicated space for road users of all ages and abilities. Complete streets have wide, unobstructed sidewalks that prioritize accessibility. They have protected lanes for active transportation, where a physical curbed barrier makes it difficult for people driving to veer out of their lane and hurt or kill someone."

We need these everywhere because walking is not just recreation, it is a legitimate form of transportation. In the U.K., 22% of all trips are taken on foot. For short trips less than a mile, "walking is totally dominant, accounting for over 78% of all such travel."

Back at the Economist, they titled their article "In Britain, the least sexy form of travel is getting some attention." One could argue about whether walking is the least sexy form of travel, especially if you do it the way Treehugger's Melissa Breyer does it. She explains why you should:

"Unlike so many other forms of exercise, walking is not about gear or clothes or expertise. It does not require a gym, and it’s easy, cheap, and exceedingly kind to the body. Walking for the sake of taking a walk is emotionally as well as physically pleasing; walking for the sake of getting somewhere is cheaper and easier on the planet than driving. And for whatever reason you find yourself walking, it's a great form of exercise. Walking is a wealth of wins."

Treehugger's Katherine Martinko also is a walker, writing that "walking is a healthy, green way to transport oneself, but it requires time, which is at a premium nowadays. By making the time to walk, however, we create a healthier world filled with happier individuals."

I think it can all be summarized in four words: Walking is climate action.