Walking around these days is different. We stop to chat with neighbors at a greater distance. Masks (which we* hope you’re all wearing) add visual dialogue and have kicked our …
Walking around these days is different. We stop to chat with neighbors at a greater distance. Masks (which we* hope you’re all wearing) add visual dialogue and have kicked our pattern-recognition brains into new territory. Recognizing a forehead is now as valuable as recognizing someone’s posture. 2020—who knew?
Our need for socially distant encounters has also accelerated the deployment of outdoor dining, the tried-and-true streetscape amenity highlighted in livability studies throughout the world. Things develop faster when interests converge, even when that convergence values a reduction in overall speed.
Other examples of change are popping up in places where reducing automobile access is freeing up space for people to walk and bike around. Making it speedier and more convenient for all of us to slow down is a fun concept.
Public health and livable streets have always been part of making our neighborhoods resilient. Apparently, pandemics draw out that truth like a salve. Now that we’re seeing these changes in action, we can assess and iterate.
Does adding sidewalk dining tables encroach upon the pedestrian experience? Does the placement of street trees (another iconic streetscape recommendation) become more physically problematic than the welcome shading effect of those same trees when paired with expanding storefront footprints? Should we consider removing some parking spaces and allowing protected table seating beyond the sidewalk to preserve comfortable walkability?
Finding the right balance between equally valid claims to public space is a useful pursuit. Whatever our solutions may be, it’s an exciting time to be thinking about these things.
We’re all afforded an opportunity to reflect on what’s around us right now. What was, what is and what could be are queries that touch on systems and long-standing patterns. While some of these conditions are fresh in our minds, others have been here for longer. Let’s take our auto-oriented transportation network for a thought ride around the block.
After Honesdale’s switch to one-way traffic and bridge addition, the north/south flow through town increased. That flow encouraged a complimentary increase in speed. Downtown’s main streets became highways. That wouldn’t have been an issue if it weren’t such a one-sided development. Induced demand for traffic aside (yet worth looking up), these infrastructure improvements improved the driver’s experience at the expense of the walker’s.
After the first of three people (since we reoriented our transportation network) were struck and killed while walking home, it suddenly became clear that crossing the street on the upstream side of an intersection was safer. We stopped painting the downstream crossings. Crosswalks exist at both ends of these intersections, by legal definition and regardless of paint, but our symbols offer useful guidance.
It is objectively safer to cross the street on the upstream side of one way traffic. Yet doing so means pedestrians need to walk further and drivers need to pay less attention. Similarly, we’ve added lighted, crossing kiosks that are user-activated to increase pedestrian visibility. The more visible you are, the safer you are when crossing the street but, again, we’ve added subtle programming to our system.
Automobiles should yield to pedestrians at crosswalks by legal obligation. Drivers, however, need not internalize this knowledge. They’ve been trained to look upstream for other cars and to associate blinking lights with people.
A decade ago, drivers and walkers of Honesdale were in regular communication, looking out for each other as equal participants in an ecosystem of travel. Since then, we’ve made the driving experience more comfortable, convenient and safer by placing the responsibility of multi-use safety on the pedestrian.
Now, consider this scene: Someone pushing a stroller at a painted crosswalk has to wait as multiple cars drive by, even though this parent has the legal right of way. They’re holding their child-weighted stroller with two hands and don’t feel comfortable redirecting one to press a light-activating button while standing on a sloping sidewalk extension that doesn’t offer street-level refuge. It’s their turn to cross the street by simply being there but if they don’t push that button, drivers are less likely to stop because so much environmental feedback is directed in service of that sweet, sweet auto flow.
This isn’t a driver problem and it’s certainly not a walker problem. It’s a system problem. System problems are tougher to notice, but addressing them is of the utmost importance. People are hurt and people die because of problems in our systems.
Sometimes we’re gifted moments where stars and interests align. Where keeping our neighbors healthy means eating outside more. Where the usage pressures of the sidewalk grow out and press up against the designs of the roadway. Where lights shine on parts making up our shared systems. In these moments, we can carve paths for evolution, based on practice and community understanding.
Keep an eye on the street and be mindful when you’re driving. People live, work, play, march and speak there because they’re owned by everyone in common. Also, and as a reminder, wear a mask and Black Lives Matter.
*Dr. Anthony Fauci and Jane Jacobs—pseudonyms Derek Williams used here to make his point about masks—makes maps, movie festivals, and other things under the project umbrella of Canaltown. You can find more H’dale stories at canaltown552.com or social channels @canaltown552.