policy & design

The tyranny of traffic

I was in Fitzroy today, mapping the land uses and the building types on nine blocks (in order to make a map to illustrate a broader policy point). Since I had to have a good look at full nine residential blocks, from front and back, and it was a nice day and I was on a bike, I moved through the area in quite a specific way: crisscrossing a small area of about 400m x 400m in all directions, back and forth, north to south and east to west then back, stopping every few minutes to take photos, draw a line on my map, or try to peek under a fence. Come to think of it, the reason why I enjoy this kind of activity so much is that it’s very similar to how we played in my neighbourhood when I was little. Indeed, this kind of movement, directionless and slow, which covers a small area very intensively, would trace the same pattern on the map as a child playing.

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I was the only person in this corner of Fitzroy doing this. I spent an hour in the area, perhaps, and I didn’t see a single person twice, adult nor child. Even if Australian cities tend to be pedestrian-dead, Fitzroy is a very beautiful neighbourhood, with narrow streets and old houses and not much traffic at all, and it’s surprising how little street life it has. But around 17h, or 5pm, I realised why this might be, when the large roads around Fitzroy started funneling commuters back home, and the traffic through the neighbourhood increased just enough to notice what’s been going on all day.

There isn’t much traffic going through Fitzroy: perhaps a car will drive down a single street once every 5 or 10 minutes during the peak hour. But each car whooshes through at an extremely unpleasant (and too high) speed of about 40 km/h, making lots of noise if anything is in their way. This infrequent, but fast, traffic was completely sufficient to make the area feel like it’s not meant for pedestrians; not even for bikes.

Yes, there’s not a lot of traffic, but each passing car is an unannounced, fast-moving ton of steel, driven by an impatient, self-righteous person. I saw cars veer round corners and take advantage of no traffic signs in the area. I saw cars speed to get through the traffic-calming green islands before a cyclist. I did not see them stop to let a single pedestrian through. I saw cyclists and pedestrians speed up or stop in order not to hamper the vehicular traffic. Every time a car went through the neighbourhood, it was clear that it never occurred to them that the entire Fitzroy wasn’t just edge decoration to their infrastructure.

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But why would it? Everything in this environment is designed to promote car traffic. And I mean everything. City of Yarra is ‘committed’ to getting traffic speeds in residential streets down to 20-40 km/h, and there are traces of traffic calming green islands that narrow roads down towards intersections. But the legal limit is 40 km/h almost everywhere within the council (and this is good: normal Australian speed limit is 50 km/h on non-major roads; in Europe, for example, it tends to be 30 km/h). The roads have two lanes each. Almost every street has car parking on both sides. Perpendicular parking is not uncommon (that is 5-6m off the width of the street). In contrast, footpaths are about a metre wide on most streets: not enough for two people to pass each other.

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Look at the ratio between the street width given to cars, and to pedestrians, on a perfectly ordinary small street in this area. The ratio is about 3:1 for cars. Bicycle paths are largely not marked. There is no street furniture (benches etc). There are no shops! There are hardly any cafes. There are no bus stops. There are no playgrounds. There are no water fountains. There is no bicycle parking. There is literally nothing for a pedestrian in this area that could constitute a ‘service’, nothing that would confirm their right to be on this street. In fact, we legislate specifically against any kind of such thing in the residential environments of Australian cities. Outside the private houses, there is nothing but car infrastructure.

Add to it a whole bunch of other, subtler design measures: different ways of criminalising and punishing bicycle use, such as mandatory helmets (on which another time, because it’s a policy & research minefield); an ongoing campaign to scare Australian parents against giving any freedom of movement to their children; and a whole bunch of planning regulations that demand extensive car parking provisions, and result in this kind of street interface:

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in areas where this used to be the norm:

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And there you go. There are no pedestrians on these streets. There is nothing to make the cars slow down. There is nothing to pay attention to. There is nobody else claiming the streets. Streets that should be designed entirely as pedestrian spaces, as spaces for play and slow, un-dangerous movement, have been left entirely as traffic infrastructure.

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You can see from this map that many one-way streets have been introduced, probably in the 1970-80s, almost certainly to deter through-traffic and make the area more liveable. But, once a driver finds these streets, there is not much that can stop them driving to the speed limit, and irregular traffic can be as noisy, annoying, and dangerous as constant traffic would be. You can’t give two thirds of street space to cars, far above the minimum they need to pass through, and mandate some of the highest speed limits in the developed world, and then be surprised when it creates dangerous, unpleasant pedestrian spaces. This is an entirely designed problem.

In Japan, and also in Europe, one very often encounters the exact opposite: narrow streets, with lots of street furniture and beautiful paving (both decorative elements that very explicitly present the street as a hanging-out area). These streets are often nominally two-way, and may have very high speed limits: it’s just that two cars cannot actually pass each other, and achievable speed limits are around 5-10 km/h. It’s the uncertainty that makes cars slow down: having to look out for lots of other users. They’re called shared spaces, living streets, home zones, of woonerf (having been invented in the Netherlands). This is how they work in practice:

There is no good way to finish this journal entry. I have been very consciously trying to sustain a life I was living in Germany throughout the 2012, and have thus been noticing all the structural and social impediments to that kind of (very good) life on the streets of Melbourne. It is simply important to keep in mind that the large difference in pedestrian comfort between, say, Melbourne and central Florence is not very accidental, and also not historical. Large differences in quality of life between two cities can almost always be explained by, sometimes very small, differences in how the cities are designed. And everything in the cities we live has been designed by someone.

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