Monthly Archive for July, 2012

Lessons from Europe: We’re doing it wrong

In the last post, I shared some of the differences between the pedestrian experience in Seattle and the experience in the British Isles and Paris. While I do believe the urban experience in Europe is better overall than that in Seattle, I don’t think the reasons for that are sidewalks or mixed use or greenways or any of the common urban discussion topics in Seattle.

While Europe suffers as much, if not more than us, by having given up streets that were once used by everyone to be for cars only, the fact that Seattle’s roadways are at least twice as wide as the back streets of Paris already puts us at a huge disadvantage in terms of the pedestrian experience.

Compact street in Edinburgh

Compact, pedestrian oriented street in Edinburgh

European town centers were built well before cars existed and this pedestrian-centered mode of development puts destinations close to each other and makes walking the most convenient way to get around. Paris isn’t a great city for pedestrians just because it has sidewalks.

Many European cities also have extensive and well-used transit systems and they are also an essential part of the transportation network. But London didn’t become a great city by building a great underground network first. It became a great city that required a great transportation system.

A dedicated contingent of Seattlites fighting for bus service, sidewalks, and other urban amenities will never make Seattle a great city. To improve the transportation network here, Seattle could spend $4.5 billion to put sidewalks on every block. But providing amenities for walking doesn’t in itself create a great place to walk. We would be better served by investing in development to build shops in proximity to people and providing housing for people to support the shops.

Parisians on the Seine

Parisians on the Seine at sunset

The answer isn’t density, however – that’s too imprecise a word. Density can mean 40 story towers with 80 feet wide streets in between. Density is only successful when it supports compactness. Compactness can mean narrow streets and narrow sidewalks, an ideal of the urban landscape that may be hard for Seattle to implement today.

But until we begin to value the spaces that keep us farther from the places we want to go, walkers will continue to be delayed and deterred by places that provide no value to the pedestrian. We can look to root out obstacles to compactness and anything that deadens the streetscape and keeps people off the street. Space-eating parking lots, large towers with giant underground parking garages, and abandoned storefronts all undermine a pedestrian-friendly urban area and keep people from enjoying our public squares.

With funding for alternative modes of transportation being cut in the latest national transportation bill, supporters of walking, biking, and riding have suffered a defeat. But this is an opportunity to realize that to create a great pedestrian environment, the path of least resistance isn’t convincing people to think that they want it. The solution is creating a place where people demand it.


Walking in Europe

I recently spent three weeks in the British Isles and Paris with an eye on the pedestrian experience. Now back in Seattle, I’m here to share what we have to learn from Europe (and what they could learn from us).

While Seattle is thought of as a pedestrian-friendly city in America, the experience walking in Seattle is very different than walking in the walkable European cities of Dublin, London, and Paris.

Seattle pedestrians are known for our almost robotic patience in waiting for the walk signal. On my visit to Europe, it took a while to get used to the fact that nobody, other than tourists, waits for the signal.

Walking is often called a mode of active transportation but it definitely felt more active in Europe than in Seattle. Watching for traffic, sidestepping slow moving locals and lost tourists, and hopping between narrow sidewalks and narrow roadways meant walking in Europe took more effort. It feels pretty passive by comparison to ignore cars and thoughtlessly obey crosswalk signals while walking here in Seattle.

Abbey Road cover, photo taken in London

Crosswalks like this (and albums like this) are not the norm in London

While urbanists often consider America as having poor pedestrian infrastructure, the experience is different between the continents. Crosswalks as shown on the cover of Abbey Road are the exception in England. Crossing is often done at your own risk, as pedestrians aren’t given the right of way like they are here and road markings for pedestrians are fewer and less clearly marked.

Marked pedestrian crossings can be far apart, and crosswalk signals often have a long wait for a short time to cross. Jaywalking in the British Isles was made easier by helpful labels on the pavement telling you which way to look.

Helpful street markings for jaywalkers

Helpful street markings for jaywalkers

Some areas had few crossings of major streets, like parts of downtown Dublin, giving pedestrians limited options for walking. In contrast, Edinburgh had plenty of narrow pedestrian alleys, called closes. While walking down small dark alleys wouldn’t be a comfortable experience in most parts of America, feeling safe, was never an issue in the northwestern part of Europe. In the many pedestrian areas that I walked through, there were very few beggars, homeless, or mentally unstable individuals. Not being asked for money or otherwise interrupted by someone on the street seemed to make for a much more comfortable pedestrian experience. We don’t often consider homelessness in the context of the pedestrian streetscape, but there is a relationship there that is worth consideration.

Trafalgar Square in London

This is far from Westlake Park

As far as the built environment goes, there were some pedestrian only areas like Grafton Street in Dublin, the Shambles in York, and parts of the Latin Quarter in Paris that were highlights of their respective cities, but I felt the well-used public living rooms were an even better pedestrian amenity. From busy squares in York and the crowded but comfortable Trafalgar Square in London to the River Seine with hundreds of Parisians enjoying their wine and cheese at sunset, there are no public spaces in Seattle that compare, and certainly not our busiest public parks like Victor Steinbrueck Park and Westlake Park.

Those great public spaces and pedestrian streets make the biggest difference in making walking in Europe more pleasant than walking in Seattle, but their success isn’t due as much to the architects that designed them as it is where they’re located. In the next post, I’ll share some lessons I learned from the European transportation infrastructure and how our focus is wrong if we want a similar experience here.