We need more walkable streets!

Chee Czi Lim
Feb 20, 2016 · 6 min read

Drawing inspiration from a 50-min 4km evening walk that I had from Novena MRT station to a sport hall (near Botanic Garden) in Singapore, a seemingly long distance by measure of walking, I discovered that walking should be one of the primary mobility tools for city planners, mayors, place-makers and of course everyone of us. And I came up with a rather ambitious line during the course of the walk:

If I were a mayor, I must walk every single street in the city!

Of course, no way I will be a mayor in my lifetime. But the second part of the line seems to be quite practical— walk every single street in the city. I hope to explain in the following texts why everyone should embrace more walking than dispatching our cars on streets, and how we can do that.

Needless to say, walking comes with lots of benefits, not least in health and fitness promotion. Human is inherently born to walk.

But I have to say human does not embrace well with the advent of automobile technology since 19th century. We have been losing it all to cars in the space around us: we widen our streets, impose draconian restriction, sprawl our towns, and make short distance longer than it used to be. Don’t get me wrong, I do not hate cars; neither do I hate new game-changer technology. In fact, I like technological advancement, that transforms our living realm (if it is done right). But the fact that cars destroy (not merely disrupt) human livings in many aspects should worry everyone of us. We acknowledge but take little action on the actuality that vehicle accidents killed much more innocent lives than terrorism, and even warfare. It has come to a point that it shouldn’t be called “accident” — but man-made disaster!

Walking has much more benefits. Other than keeping us out of sedentary living, when we walk on the street we discover new shops, new items, new food, new decorations. new faces. We make closer contact with the street objects and the community. We begin and stop our steps whenever we wish to. It is the slower pace that gives walking more freedom than driving. It provides a more sensory journey along the street, coupled by wider angle in our vision. In other words, we see and feel more real things in walking than driving. Most importantly, by walking we do not pollute air.

Most importantly, by walking we do not pollute air.

However, our walking experience may not always be joyous or comfortable. Residents walking at the sidewalks are very often compromised, due to the street space mismanagement compounded by cars. We are directly or indirectly deterred from walking. In most circumstances, we are forced not to walk. The streets have become unsafe and uncomfortable with our walking space encroached by fast-moving dangerous cars. Crossing a street from one side to another proves to be a tough chore in many cases. The streets have become so frigid and lifeless by having car-centered design rather than human-scale design: we have buildings that made up of boring blank, empty walls and we have plentiful of inaccessible private or semi-private buildings surrounded by impregnable fences. Worse still, we have preponderance of underused car parks that line the streets. One can get the worst walking experience in car park area at the peripheral over-sized shopping malls. The problem with cars is that they are too space inefficient!

Why walking has to be so awful?

We need street that is friendly to the human — not cars. We need street that instantaneously encourages and supports walking. A “general theory” of walkability presented by Jeff Speck in his book Walkable City proposed 10 steps that primarily deal with 4 prevalent factors that make a walkable street: Safe, Useful, Comfortable and Interesting. All four factors have to come hand in hand to make a street walkable for the residents. I strongly urge every city planner should have this book in reading list, and attempt to his fullest to make the street that meets the factors.

City or transport planner often leaves most of the street design to an official guide document with little, if not none, input from residents or city dwellers that live at the both sides of the street. Planner should spend more time on the field — by walking — and experience in his own whether the street is meant to be it or could it be improved. Of course, this could not work if the city planner himself think that cars should be given more priority (sadly, it is, in many cities). We certainly need an overwhelming change to our thinking: we should plan for moving people, rather than moving cars.

Here comes an interesting question: how city planner should move around during his official work? From my observation (correct me if I am wrong), I deduce that majority of city planner in any part of the world do not opt for walking, cycling or public transportation. We have seen many of them (no offense) sitting in official car led by ludicrous amount of convoy.

We should plan for moving people, rather than moving cars.

Streets are the main public spaces in the city, the main interconnecting network that gives rise to the community, social and economics functions. I reckon that city planners should walk every street under his jurisdiction, as a tool for his works. To complement and support walking environment, reliable and extensive public transportation such as bus and train systems need to be planned and implemented, regardless of political or economic challenges that may exist in the way. This is to provide multi-modal transportation so that the need of driving car is reduced. I also welcome the new game-changer — Autonomous Vehicles or Driverless Cars that could potentially cut off more cars on streets (perhaps?) by allowing more car-sharing.

“The success of a city is when the rich take public transportation; not when the poor have car.” Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá

A caveat is that not every street has to be walkable (certainly not in industrial area), but we should not be compromised to accept that cars are dominant in every street, especially where most residents — the elderly and the young — live.

We have lived with more than half a century where cars dominated our daily lives. The fanatic about cars is horribly ingrained in our culture. The only way to change that is to have attractive streets and places that everyone loves to walk on, within close distance (and also accessible) to our residences. It can be the journey to school, to office, to convenient shop, to park, to friend’s house. If we love to walk again, our cities and towns will also be far more sustainable and exciting. A virtuous cycle.

Unless the Earth is too hot or too cold to support waking in the open space (in fact, it is car usage that contributes substantially to climate change), having walkable streets as the priority won’t be a wrong choice in at least five decades to come.

Thanks for reading. :)

Journal of International Psychogeography

Published by the International Psychogeography Insitute

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