Walking in the City

Copenhagen is leading the way. Bogota, Columbia’s capital, is following. Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon, are right in there. All across Europe, cities are working to make themselves more pedestrian friendly.

Walking: it’s a seven million year old tradition. Can you imagine the romance of Paris without walking? The wonders of Prague? The history of Florence?

Oh, it’s easy to imagine London without walking, or any city where the car still rules, making walking a noisy, often dangerous activity. You don’t pause to look up at the skyline or the rooflines in such cities; you keep your eye firmly on the traffic, to ensure your safety.

But once a space is made for walking, how quickly the joy returns. To stroll; to linger over shop windows; to savour the aroma of the bakers, the coffee shop. To feel. No-one writes poems about traffic.

We have been designed by Nature to walk. When we walk, we can stop and say hello; we can talk to strangers. It’s an old, old, old tradition – we don’t forget seven million years in a hurry, however much the traffic engineers want us to.

In Europe, wherever a city has reclaimed its pedestrian spaces, its population has grown. People want to live in pedestrian friendly cities. It’s instinctive. It’s ancient. It’s fun.

So with the municipal elections coming up, and new people standing to become mayors and councillors, it is a good time to be asking : "What will you do to make your community more pedestrian-friendly?" Not just in Victoria, but also in Saanich, Oak Bay, Esquimalt, Colwood, Langford, the Highlands, Sooke.

Copenhagen has embraced a Ten-Step Program to become more pedestrian-friendly (thanks to Jan Gehl, Danish architect, for this list):

1. Convert streets into pedestrian thoroughfares. Copenhagen turned its traditional main street into a pedestrian thoroughfare in 1962. Since then, it has gradually added more pedestrian-only streets, linked to pedestrian-priority streets where walkers and cyclists have the right-of-way but cars are allowed at low speeds.

2. Reduce traffic and parking gradually. To keep traffic volume stable, the city reduced the number of cars in the city centre by eliminating parking spaces at a rate of 2-3% per year. Between 1986 and 1996 they eliminated about 600 spaces.

3. Turn parking lots into public squares. The act of creating pedestrian streets freed up parking lots, enabling the city to transform them into public squares.

4. Keep scale dense and low. Low-slung, densely spaced buildings allow breezes to pass over them, making the city centre milder and less windy than the rest of Copenhagen.

5. Honor the human scale. The city’s modest scale and street grid make walking a pleasant experience; its historic buildings, with their stoops, awnings, and doorways, provide people with impromptu places to stand and sit.

6. Populate the core. More than 6,800 residents now live in the city centre. They’ve eliminated their dependence on cars, and at night their lighted windows give visiting pedestrians a feeling of safety.

7. Encourage student living. Students who commute to school on bicycles don’t add to traffic congestion; on the contrary, their active presence, day and night, animates the city.

8. Adapt the cityscape to changing seasons. Outdoor cafés, public squares, and street performers attract thousands in the summer; skating rinks, heated benches, and gaslit heaters on street corners make winters in the city centre enjoyable.

9. Promote cycling as a major mode of transportation. The city established new bike lanes and extended existing ones. They placed bike crossings (using space freed up by the elimination of parking) near intersections. Currently 34% of Copenhageners who work in the city bicycle to their jobs.

10. Make bicycles available. People can borrow city bikes for about $2.50; when finished, they leave them at any one of the 110 bike stands and their money is refunded.

To this, for Victoria, we must add:

11. Expand public transit, bringing it into the 21st century, and

12. Develop a Light Rapid Transit system, to ferry people in and out of the city centre.

By making our public spaces more pedestrian friendly, we will increase their safety; build a stronger sense of community; encourage more public art and performance; encourage more urban shopping; improve life for seniors and children; attract more bright young people who like to live this way; improve the air quality; and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.