August 6, 2006

Pedestrian Streets: A Couple of Examples From Europe

In a few European cities, there aren't separate spaces for pedestrians and cars at all, but instead they all share one large space -- the idea being to calm traffic and make it clear that the public space belongs to all. While I didn't quite run into that while in Reykjavik last month, it was interesting to see a number of city streets where sidewalk and roadway weren't separated as much as we expect.

I'm not talking about a design for automobiles where walkers are clearly an afterthought, such as the ludicrous "walkway" painted onto the roadway next to BJ's in Framingham. That's a place where few would feel safe actually trying to walk. I mean a thoughtful design where the roadway isn't so obviously a so-called traffic sewer, but instead is part of streetscape -- material is more decorative than blacktop, and is narrow enough and surrounded enough by walking areas that drivers naturally slow down. Such as this:

Reykjavik street scene

It worked well. In fact, when we first got to the city, we weren't even sure some of those streets were for cars at all, until we saw others driving there. (There are actually a reasonable number of cars on the streets there; I just waited for traffic to pass so I could get a good shot of the street material).

Note the lack of a curb. Walkway and roadway are on the same leve, but landscaping barriers and deocrative work demark driving and walking areas. Also see how wide the pedestrian areas are compared to the driving area, which makes for a very pleasant pedestrian experience.

Likely even more enjoyable for people on foot: Montpellier, France, where cars are banned from the city center altogether, although there are motorized trams for transport. "Montpellier's hidden squares and busy narrow streets are a delight for the pedestrian on the prowl," writes John Allemang in the Toronto Globe & Mail, in a travel article headlined A Utopia Sans Automobile. "For a visitor, the virtual absence of cars is paradise . . . an unstoppable delight in this bar-filled biosphere where tables crowd into every square, flute solos seep out of the upstairs windows of the pale golden buildings and the sweet sound of conversation reverberates along the quieted winding lanes. . . .

"Released from the usual pedestrian preoccupation with personal survival, I ambled along in aimless innocence, pleased by pretty well everything I saw — gold-painted mimes cranking a donation-fed antique movie camera, a whirling carousel, the 19th-century opera house that seems straight out of Paris (minus the honking horns), an esplanade of chestnut trees and flower vendors, a space full of happy people who know that cities should be made for them and not the other way around."

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