Streets Are for People First

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ the most walkable street in Hamliton, Ontario

Visiting the City of Hamilton for a conference recently, I was surprised to find myself on the most walkable street in town and faced with this- a construction hoarding blocking the entire sidewalk, with no provision for pedestrians. I went around it, walking in the one northbound lane, to see on the other side...

road closure

Lloyd Alter/ North James Street looking North/CC BY 2.0

...a sign telling me to use a crosswalk, even though the nearest one was about 200 yards back. Even though there was plenty of room to add a pedestrian walkway because there are still three lanes left open.

conference ad

© National Trust for Canada

Even though this is the hottest street in town, the most pedestrianized, the one used in all the marketing photos for the conference and for every other ad promoting Hamilton.

This is what happens when you put people in cars first instead of putting people first. In Hamilton they prioritize the car to such a degree that they don’t even think about people wanting to actually walk. The local newspaper gives space to a rant against a proposed light rail line that includes the statement “I have driven in many cities around the world, and truly the most driveable I have been in is Hamilton. With streetcars, that will be a thing of the past.” Because of course, being able to drive fast from one end of town to the other is what makes cities great.

King Street Hamilton

Lloyd Alter/ King Street, Hamilton/CC BY 2.0

The ranter in the Spec wants King Street to stay the way it is, with five empty one way lanes.

Yet it is the congested streets that are where people want to be. North James Street in Hamilton is thriving because they turned it from a one way into a two way street, added bump-outs and features to slow cars down, and made in comfortable for people to walk on. They learned that if you put walking people first, then they shop, spend and stop instead of just driving through. It’s the same in successful cities around the world: provide a mix of ways to get around. Go multi-modal.

Rebecca street

Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Hamilton used to be all about walking. They even marvellously put street names at intersections right into the sidewalk. They don't do this anymore; now, walking people are not even supposed to look down.

Over at 8-80 cities, Gil Penalosa says the same thing about walking- that we all are all multi-modal, but he puts the pedestrian first.

Walking is part of every journey we make. While not everyone drives, bikes, or takes transit, everybody walks ... Not to mention that walkable cities are some of the most economically vibrant and competitive cities in the world. Have you ever heard anyone coming back from Paris to talk about how wonderful the highways are?

Pedestrians First from Knight Foundation on Vimeo.

He also notes that “It’s possible to prioritize pedestrians and still allow cars, but prioritizing cars rarely works well for pedestrians.” He makes other points:

  • Lowering the speed of cars is essential. An accident at 20 mph has a 5 percent mortality rate; at 40 mph the mortality rate climbs to 85 percent.
  • Adding medians to streets lowers accidents by 56 percent.
  • Giving pedestrians the walk signal six to seven seconds before the light turns green makes them visible to turning cars.
  • Encouraging each block to have multiple establishments instead of long facades makes the streetscape friendly and interesting
  • .

That last one is interesting, because it has nothing to do with the road itself; it is about making the street more attractive to people walking, more useful to people actually using it. The evidence is clear as day in Hamilton, where the congested street with small storefronts succeeds, while the big wide one way street is totally dead. But hey, the Spec ranter can get across town fast.

But he is not alone in thinking that roads belong to cars; while I was in Hamilton, they were having a busy day back home in Toronto where eighteen people were hit by cars, ten just in the morning. A spokesperson for the Paramedics, Kim McKinnon, told the Toronto Star:

deleted comment

Toronto Star/Screen capture

“Some are walking around in all dark clothing, with their headphones on and hoods up.”

Curiously, those comments were deleted from the article online, probably because they were so obviously biased to the windshield view. What was left in the paper was McKinnon’s statement “Obviously, there is something about (the day), the weather and the status of the roads and people rushing that is causing these accidents.”

What is also obvious is that when you mix people walking, cycling and driving, consideration should be given to the most fragile among them. In Hamilton, they have to acknowledge that people actually walk on their sidewalks and need protection; that not everyone is trying to speed through town but that some actually want to live there and use it. In Toronto, even the paramedics who are scraping people off the streets have to recognize that it is people in cars who are doing the damage, even if everyone is rushing around in deadly rubber boots.

Penalosa says we should put pedestrians first. I worry about putting anyone first and putting labels on them; we are not drivers and cyclists and pedestrians but people, all with rights to be in public space. Make the roads safer and better for everyone however they are getting around, instead of just always thinking about people in cars.