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Green lights for pedestrians on two semaphores in traffic.

In a scene in the movie “L.A. Story”, Steve Martin leaves his house, gets into his car, drives next door, parks his car, and goes in to visit his neighbor. This may seem comical, but unfortunately it does reflect a dismaying, ever-growing auto-centricity of our urban spaces. A recent study (1) demonstrated that the current standard of road design discourages all forms of walking. Even though almost all urban roads in America are flanked with sidewalks, it turns out that walkers are not encouraged by their presence, they are actually discouraged from walking next to busy roads!

Denser & Faster Traffic Equals Less Walking!

The researchers found that walkers near roads and on sidewalks are wary of the danger posed by traffic and thus minimize the amount of time that they spend walking in areas where moving motor vehicles are present. The authors discovered that there is an inverse correlation between the speed and volume of traffic and the levels of walking in the vicinity: The more vehicles are passing by and the faster they are going, the less walkers tend to venture out. The potential danger posed by the motor vehicles is clearly identified by the walkers and even what would seem to be well designed sidewalks tend not to assuage their fears. More and faster cars always equal less walking!

Injuries To Walkers Are Greatest In A City’s Retail Areas

A study in Britain (2) proved that there is a direct correlation between retail density and pedestrian casualties during working hours. Areas which have a high number of retail outlets in city centers also have a correspondingly elevated level of injuries to walkers. Surprisingly this level is higher than in similarly dense urban areas which house offices or industries. After hours, the highest levels of pedestrian casualties occur in the areas near clubs and bars.

An Extra 12.5 Miles Per Hour Impact Speed Increases Walker Injury 5-Fold!

Although common sense dictates that injuries to walkers are more serious as the average speed of impact increases, the disconcerting fact is that just a few extra miles per hour can dramatically increase pedestrian injury levels. A Swedish study (3) found that motor vehicles impacting walkers at 25 miles per hour cause double the amount of injury as an impact at 18.5 miles per hour. When the speed is increased to 31 miles per hour, the level of injury increases five fold!

One Solution: Move Retail To The Second Story Accessible By Raised Walkways

Urban planners need to go back to the drawing board and create cityscapes which do not actively discourage walking. Since there seem to be no option but for both vehicles and walkers to share the city, completely innovative solutions must be found. One of the leading suggestions: Separate walkers from cars by raised walkways. Retail and commercial would be located on what is now the second story, while vehicles use what is now the current ground level and access underground parking spots and other service and delivery areas.

Our Cities Must Be Reclaimed For Walkers Now!

We need to break from the standard of road design established in the early 20th century where roads are flanked by sidewalks and pedestrians are just supposed to fend for themselves as best they can. The 21st century truth is that cars and walkers just don’t mix, and we all need to take an active role in redesigning our streets to encourage urban walking. The cities must be reclaimed for the walkers! Now!

Key To References

1 Who owns the roads? How motorised traffic discourages walking and bicycling. Inj Prev. 2009 Dec;15(6):369-73.
2 The influence of urban land-use on non-motorised transport casualties. Accid Anal Prev. 2006 Nov;38(6):1049-57. Epub 2006 Jul 28.
3 Pedestrian fatality risk as a function of car impact speed. Accid Anal Prev. 2009 May;41(3):536-42. Epub 2009 Feb 24.

Image –Two green lights for pedestrians Photos by Pond5

  • skye

    There is a section of road I used to bike to work on that had grass and trees between the road and the sidewalk that was quite peaceful (even though the road was a highway). Raised walkways might be more practical to add to existing urban areas, but for new streets having a wider sidewalk with trees along it seems to be a good solution as well. It may also make the sidewalk seem more like a park… I'd be interested to know how much of the low foot traffic is related to sidewalks being concrete surrounded by asphalt and steel (dreary) instead of from the vehicles.