policy & design

Annoying drivers

In Across Europe, Irking Drivers Is Urban Policy (NY Times), Elisabeth Rosenthal tries to explain the last 50-or-so years of European transport planning as a mission to “make car use expensive and just plain miserable enough to tilt drivers toward more environmentally friendly modes of transportation”.

Cities including Vienna to Munich and Copenhagen have closed vast swaths of streets to car traffic. Barcelona and Paris have had car lanes eroded by popular bike-sharing programs. Drivers in London and Stockholm pay hefty congestion charges just for entering the heart of the city. And over the past two years, dozens of German cities have joined a national network of “environmental zones” where only cars with low carbon dioxide emissions may enter.

To that end, the municipal Traffic Planning Department here in Zurich has been working overtime in recent years to torment drivers. Closely spaced red lights have been added on roads into town, causing delays and angst for commuters. Pedestrian underpasses that once allowed traffic to flow freely across major intersections have been removed. Operators in the city’s ever expanding tram system can turn traffic lights in their favor as they approach, forcing cars to halt.

Around Löwenplatz, one of Zurich’s busiest squares, cars are now banned on many blocks. Where permitted, their speed is limited to a snail’s pace so that crosswalks and crossing signs can be removed entirely, giving people on foot the right to cross anywhere they like at any time.

As he stood watching a few cars inch through a mass of bicycles and pedestrians, the city’s chief traffic planner, Andy Fellmann, smiled. “Driving is a stop-and-go experience,” he said. “That’s what we like! Our goal is to reconquer public space for pedestrians, not to make it easy for drivers.”

Well, yes and no. This may look like pure meanness, but there is a management word for it: disincentivising. European cities would have never been able to accommodate car as everyone’s default mode of transport without razing half of the houses to the ground, and so they just haven’t. (I remember one urban planning tutorial I had, freshly migrated to Australia, where we discussed car use in cities. One student made the garden-variety logical error of saying: “Yes, car ownership is lower in Europe and Asia than in the US and Australia, but it started rising later. So, eventually it will catch up.” I pointed out it can’t work that way, because WHERE would the Europeans and Asians store and drive their cars? After a certain level of saturation, the city gets so congested that people don’t drive anymore. Simple. I have seen this numerous times, across many cities, and the example I quoted for him were my friends in Lisbon, who once said: “Only stupid tourists think you can get somewhere downtown in a car.”)

Meanwhile, Australian and US cities apply the same meanness, but to pedestrians. It feels very unloving to be a person walking in a city like Melbourne most days. Green crossing lights don’t come up automatically, and often there is an invisible window of time to press the light-request button. Every day I stand waiting at the red light while parallel car traffic flows by, because MY green light inexplicably hasn’t come up. Green lights are often shorter than the crossing time. Crossing Nepean Highway to get from Elwood to Elsternwick – something I had to do every day a few years ago because the Highway separated my home from the supermarket, train and tram, and the local library – was always an adventure, because the green light to cross twelve (TWELVE!) lanes of traffic was about 15 seconds long. If you started crossing the moment the light turned green, and you were young and healthy and quick, you could just about get to the last pedestrian island before the light went decisively red, and then cross your fingers and run across the last few lanes. Then there is the strange crime of jay-walking (practiced in cities with pedestrian-unfriendly design more than in Zurich, I must say). The planning demand to provide parking whatever you build, which tends to overcompensate (in Europe, the opposite is true: parking places are capped). Then the way in which the landscape and public manners change as you move from the centre towards the edge of the city: footpaths shrink, then disappear; driveways extend, and cars start crossing the footpaths with a more marked sense of ownership; and, finally, by the time you reach the outer suburbs, the roads are enormously wide, houses have no fronts other than garage doors, and there is not a pedestrian in sight.

But, the times are changing: in Washington DC, traffic engineers are linking speeding to trigger red lights for cars. This is not even particularly punitive: cars, after all, shouldn’t speed. Since it is often assumed than anything other than a state of high and constant alert justifies cyclists’ deaths, certainly some waiting should be distributed as punishment for drivers breaking road rules.

And in New Jersey, police had a flash operation, giving tickets to drivers who don’t yield to pedestrians on zebra crossings. The interesting thing reported in this article is that many drivers apparently don’t understand that they were committing an offense:

In this TV news segment showing an “investigation” into a recent crosswalk enforcement action in Orlando, Florida, you can see what the cops are up against here. As they walk out into four lanes of traffic on what looks like a suburban arterial road, some drivers just keep coming – in one case, almost striking the undercover officer who is crossing. “They have actually got a weapon in front of them that they are driving,” Orange County Sheriff Sgt. Tony Molina said in the segment.

The drivers may be aware of the destructive potential of their vehicles, but many seem to think that just means everyone should get the heck out of their way. “I thought the guy was crazy for walking across like that,” says one guy from behind the wheel, shaking his head.

“Pedestrians are idiots, especially in New Jersey,” said Julie Mendelowitz, of Hoboken, who vowed to contest her $230 ticket. “If someone jumps out into the walkway, what makes you think that that driver can stop in enough time to not strike that pedestrian and not get hit by the cars behind them? Are the pedestrians not endangering the drivers just as much? Where’s their ticket?”

Well, no. Pedestrians (and cyclists) are far less dangerous than a moving ton of steel. And also less polluting. And less noisy. In fact, there is nothing but good externalities to pedestrians and cyclists, while car traffic comes with so many that it really is good public policy to curb car use. Which is what many European countries have been doing for a long time. Why is that even news?


This lovely presentation by Mikael Colville-Andersen for TedxZurich tackles a whole bunch of good concepts and ideas, including:

  • the birth of jaywalking
  • desire lines
  • design thinking
  • how smart cities change to suit how their citizens live
  • the use of temporary projects to test-drive urban design ideas
  • designing for usability, and how breaking the rules is not a legal problem, but a design problem