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Taking to the city streets
21 January 2008

Moves are being made in the United States to make city streets safe for pedestrians. Johannesburg would do well to heed some of their ideas.

Neil Fraser

THIS week I am reproducing two more Neal Peirce articles on streets and walkability in the United States - not because I've run out of news on the inner city, but because I feel the messages are so apt for ourselves. Our pedestrian death figures are horrifying - in 2006 there were 15 393 road deaths, of which 42 percent were pedestrian related, ie 6 465.

This means that, in comparison to the figure Neal quotes below of a motorised vehicle hitting and killing a pedestrian or cyclist every 113 minutes in the US, it happens here every 78 minutes - and that's just pedestrians.

Complete Streets
"The cause has simmered for years - and we've all felt some of it: frustration with fast traffic that turns streets through our neighbourhoods into corridors of fear. Resentment about narrow, rough or nonexistent sidewalks. A reluctance to have children cross high-speed roadways walking to school. Bicyclists taking their lives into their hands when they venture on to major roads.

"Now, finally, there's an organised nationwide movement to fight the good fight for saner streets. It's a coalition mounting a nationwide campaign for city and town roadways that include safe, quality space for pedestrians and cyclists and public transit users, accommodating their wishes just as seriously as those of car and truck drivers.

"It's called, fittingly, the Complete Streets movement. Its members cover an amazing gambit - from America Bikes and AARP, Smart Growth America and the American Society of Landscape Architects, to Paralyzed Veterans of America. The Institute of Transportation Engineers is even on board, amazing for a profession long known as the 'throughput crowd' for its pushing of maximum numbers of vehicles at maximum feasible speed through cities and villages alike.

"Complete Streets 'are about a right-of-way for everyone out there travelling, walking or biking', says Barbara McCann, the movement co-ordinator. All users of all ages and abilities, she asserts, need to be able to move safely along and across a complete street. And, McCann adds, 'safety is a huge reason'. As well it should be: every 113 minutes across the United States, a motorised vehicle hits and kills a pedestrian or cyclist. Every eight minutes one is injured, sometimes paralysed.

"Most of Europe, by contrast, has worked for years at expanding walkways and bikeways, making intersections safer and erecting physical barriers to fast city and town traffic. On a per-mile basis, a German pedestrian has only a third as much chance of being a traffic fatality as his American counterpart; a German cyclist, only half.

"People tightly wed to the single-passenger-car concept are least likely to accept the complete streets idea. But 90 percent of us, according to a survey by the National Association of Realtors, believe that new communities should be designed so we can walk more and drive less, and that public transportation should be improved and accessible.

"States and cities are getting the message. Illinois this autumn passed a complete streets law requiring the state's transportation department to include bicycling and walking facilities in all its urban-area projects. Five other states (Massachusetts, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Rhode Island) now have some form of complete streets statute or rule on the books. More than 50 metro regions, counties or cities - Charlotte to Johnson County (Kansas) Salt Lake City to Seattle - have passed similar statutes. Many others are now considering them. Chicago, for example, is moving to narrower traffic lanes, median 'refuges' and curb extensions for pedestrians, as well as converting four-lane roadways into three lanes with marked bike lanes.

"But for 'a really dramatic increase in cycling in cities', says Tim Blumenthal, the executive director of Bikes Belong, 'painting stripes won't make enough people feel safe'. Paris is creating and protecting new bike lanes with vertical 1,5-foot (0,45m) separation posts. On New York's Ninth Avenue, one of four lanes of traffic has been removed and parked cars moved out several feet from the sidewalk, creating a safe cycle-only corridor.

"Project for Public Spaces has some of the right advice for cities: 'Stop planning for speed.' 'Right-size' road projects in cities and suburbs to 'reconnect communities to their neighbours, a waterfront or park'. And 'think of transportation as public space' - roads, transit terminals, sidewalks, reconfigured to create pleasant environments, a true sense of place.

"Finally, there's health. News reports indicate America's obesity epidemic 'is levelling off' - but at outrageously high and dangerous weights (and now, as we've just heard, diminishing the life expectancy of today's overweight children). So what's the best cure? Walking? An average person walking half an hour a day would lose about 13 pounds (5,9 kilograms) a year. Blumenthal would have us think about 'two miles, two wheels' -- cycle or walk for the 41 percent of all our trips that are two miles (3,22 kilometres) or less.

"Complete streets make the walking/cycling prospect sound far more attractive. And now the American Public Health Association is seeking to connect obesity with the increasingly worrisome climate change challenge. Trading miles behind the wheel for increased walking, cycling and public transit can trim pounds and cut greenhouse gases simultaneously. Not to mention reducing smog and car deaths and registering less heart disease, osteoporosis and depression.

"'This may present the greatest public health opportunity that we've had in a century,' says the University of Wisconsin's Jonathan Palz, the president of the International Association for Ecology and Health.

"He may be right. But we're not likely to get there until we make our streets and public realm safer and more appealing - the essence of the complete streets message."

Walkability
"Could it possibly be that Washington, for years bashed by politicians, its population shrinking and at one point almost bankrupt, has become a model of how the entire nation might smartly develop in the 21st century?

"I never thought I'd see the day. But Christopher Leinberger, one of America's top real estate analysts and now Brookings Institution fellow, makes a startling case for it in his just-published book, The Option of Urbanism - Investing in a New American Dream (Island Press).

"Leinberger's case isn't about Washington's radically improved politics and city management. Rather, it's about walkability. It's about dramatic reinvestment - some $8,2-billion (R58,2-billion) worth - pouring into the city's downtown since 1997. Complementing monumental Washington, there's been a rush of new cinemas, theatres, quality restaurants and trendy retail stores and a wildly popular sports arena, all helped along by a downtown business district providing special security, marketing and planning.

"But the success story's not exclusively a downtown one - the entire Washington citistate of 5,3 million people is now booming. And it's starring especially in what Leinberger calls 'walkable urbanism' - places with the mix of destinations people want, from shops and parks and schools to pubs and entertainment, all accessible on foot.

"In a sense walkable urbanism is nothing new; it was the way towns and cities were organised from the first urban settlements some 5 500 years ago into the 20th century. But after World War II, with Americans' rush to thousands of new suburban locations, a never-before-seen norm appeared.

"Leinberger calls it 'drivable sub-urbanism'. And what a market smash it proved, offering Americans a sense of freedom, mobility, privacy, their own piece of turf and a yard for the kids to play. Plus plenty of jobs and profits, from autos to oil to real estate to fast food. The new form became virtually synonymous with the American Dream. Two generations of Americans knew practically nothing else.

"But in the 1990s the model began to lose some of its lustre. Suburbia's big parking lots and low-density zoning meant an auto for every trip. Walking and transit were impractical. Older suburbs began to decline, inducing families to drive farther and farther to new suburban rings. Thousands of malls and shopping strips were abandoned. Traffic congestion - and Washington's no exception - became so severe many families were obliged to build their lives around it. Kids had to be driven everywhere. Vehicle miles driven in America shot up a stunning 226 percent from 1983 to 2001, while population increased just 22 percent.

"So by the mid-1990s a significant number of Americans - and not just the poor and minorities long-consigned to inner cities - began to ask: isn't there a better way? Popular media began to shift its images of the city from crime and violence to the exciting, hip, place to be (such television shows as Seinfeld, Friends and Sex in the City).

"Urban crime rates took a deep dive. Most downtowns began a surprising revitalisation, with more offices, entertainment and restaurants, and a leading edge of middle-class people (often youth and empty nesters) returning. And the ideas of walkable town and city life, spread with fervour by the architects and planners of the New Urbanism movement, gnawed at the decades-old supremacy of the suburban ideal.

"None of this, Leinberger insists, means 'drivable sub-urbia' will disappear any time soon: a huge weight of custom, continued consumer choice, zoning and the sheer vastness of today's spread-out suburbia assure it will remain dominant for years to come. Nor will cities' problems, from poverty to schools, disappear soon.

But walkable urbanism has demographics going for it. The share of US families with children at home has been declining sharply; the largest household growth in the decades ahead will be empty nesters, never-nesters and singles, many likely to look to cities and their excitement.

"And cities, competing, will likely keep heeding advice to lure creative young professionals; in fact, those that don't offer true walkable urbanism, Leinberger suggests, are 'probably destined' to lose out economically.

"In the 1980s, the Washington region had two highly walkable places - Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria. Today, Leinberger calculates, it has 17 highly walkable, beckoning urban centres, with at least five more emerging - the most of any US metropolis.

"Significantly, 16 of Washington's walkable centres have subway stops; the modern Metro system, begun in the 1970s, has transformed the region as communities - Arlington County, Virginia is the star - have consciously planned dense, multi-use development around the stops.

"But Washington started its Metro when generous federal aid still flowed. Denver's doing it the harder way, with a $4,7-billion (R33,4-billion) light rail system that's 80 percent financed by local taxpayers. But the Denver region will end up with 119 miles (191,5 kilometres) of track, many walkable centres, and a burnished reputation. In the process it, too, is setting a national model."

As I said last week, we are standing at a point in time when our Joburg inner city streets are about to undergo substantial change. That change must not be merely cosmetic - replacing old surfaces with new, old street furniture with new, old street signs with new - that will be a massive wasted opportunity. The urban designers must look at how every single street works (or doesn't) and should have, at the forefront of their thinking, the concepts that are outlined in these articles.

 

Walking Tour
Auckland Park and University of Johannesburg - Something Old and Something New

Saturday, 26 January 2008

Trace the history of architecture in Johannesburg, from the early 20th century until the present. Amble along Chislehurst Avenue and admire the houses of some of Johannesburg's early members of high society, including Julius Jeppe.

Circulate through the awe-inspiring university amphitheatre and take a closer look at the new buildings, including the Arts Centre, which symbolises the transformation of the University of Johannesburg.

This tour is about old heritages but also about future heritages. The cost is R70 and booking is at Computicket. For information, telephone Gaynor Antonakis on weekdays between 9am and 1pm on 011 482 3349. Meet at the visitor's parking at entrance two, University of Johannesburg, Ditton Avenue, Auckland Park, at 2pm.

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Last Updated on 22 January 2008