By Katherine Peinhardt and Nidhi Gulati
The recent WHO Global Status Report on Road Safety revealed shocking numbers behind the global epidemic of road deaths — up to 1.35 million in 2016. Its release confirmed that vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists make up more than 26% of global road deaths, and that low-income neighborhoods are among the hardest hit by this crisis.
Even as this public health emergency continues to unfold, we design our streets to be wider, straighter, and faster, erasing our everyday experience at street level. Level of service is prioritized as the metric of success for our streets, and as a result, we lose sight of the human connection to these vital public spaces. In focusing on the flow of traffic, it is easy to forget that our streets are where everyday life happens and our streets are dehumanized. As a result of this thinking, progress on road safety is flagging in developing countries, as well as southern states of the U.S., where road deaths continue to mount, year after year.
Unfortunately, the road safety epidemic extends beyond the death toll cited in the WHO report. What is often missing in the framing of this issue is the percentage of people who feel unsafe on their streets. Perceived safety is contextual and highly dependent on the built environment of a given community. It is affected by the various complex and individual parts of a person’s experience of a city, like gender. It is only through in-depth community outreach, focused on improving streets for everyone, that we can begin to confront the global road safety epidemic. Until our streets are built to be (and feel)safer, our communities will remain in a road safety crisis.
So how do we get back to thoughtful streets designed with humans in mind? And can we re-frame our streets so that walking is expected and encouraged?
If we begin to look at streets as places, rather than through-ways, we see them as the deeply human spaces that they are. Places of commerce, work, recreation, and play, streets are one of the most fundamental public spaces with which we interact on a day-to-day basis. Safe streets for walking must be considered as a basic human right, given that, for many, walking is one of the first skills acquired in childhood, and one of the last things let go of in old age.
Architects like Ben Hamilton-Baillie have caught on to this challenge, and argue that over-regulated and over-designed streets are part of the problem. In advocating for getting rid of “standardised signs, lines, cameras, barriers and invasive traffic engineering,” Hamilton-Baillie makes the case for removing some of the formality and signage baked into modern street design. Instead, the flow of traffic could be governed by social interactions as “micro” as eye contact between drivers and pedestrians. By designing for more mindful interactions, Hamilton-Baillie’s work has transformed streets in places like Poynton Village and Exhibition Road. The new designs changed the streets in such a way that drivers expect people to walk and cross at odd angles — in other words, streets can encourage users to expect and accommodate real human behavior. While these approaches are a start to more mindful streets, they require adjustments to ensure the safety of people of all ages and abilities.
Even in cities that are not prepared to eliminate traffic lights and signage, residents have caught on to the need to humanize streets through better design, championing fundamental changes like narrowed lanes for car traffic and expansion of bike lane networks. In Fortaleza, Brazil, NACTO GDCI retrofitted street spaces with protections like parking buffers and bus stop overpasses to reduce traffic fatalities, and repurposed under-utilized parking areas as a pedestrian plaza. Perceived safety improved almost immediately, with rates of pedestrian use and street play soaring. Meanwhile, Hailey, Idaho is experimenting with parklets that expand sidewalk space, and Seattle is pioneering new approaches to building pedestrian crosswalks. By starting with the way our streets are designed, cities can reshape the everyday experience of pedestrians and cyclists.
Any strategy for humanizing streets must also focus on enforcing the accountability of drivers. Activist groups like Transportation Alternatives have championed a campaign for speed cameras in New York City school zones. Though political gridlock stymied the program at the state level, the campaign started a crucial dialogue around the proven success of speed cameras, and the need to pay attention to the vulnerability of young people on city streets. The conversation around policy change doesn’t stop there: Cities like Nashville are considering lowering default speed limits by 5 miles per hour — a significant difference for vulnerable users.
Cities like New York and San Francisco have seen safety improvements upon enhancing bike lane infrastructure, reducing speed limits, and implementing other parts of Vision Zero. But this progress is far from perfect — just last month, injuries of NYC cyclists rocketed upwards, leading some to call the month “Bloody January.” Looking to solutions, there are five cities leading the charge on streets built or re-designed to the human scale:
La Feria de San Telmo in Buenos Aires, Argentina is exemplary of the types of informal uses that make up the best streets in the world. Packed with vendors, the street connects to Plaza Dorrego and to various nearby historical sites.
In San Antonio, Texas, the Pearl Brewery has become the center of a pedestrian-oriented plaza, built without curbs and with strong, walkable connections to surrounding neighborhoods. With ample space for food vendors, play elements sprinkled alongside walkways, and a nod to a historic acequia in the space, the Pearl Brewery has become a walkable destination for food and drink.
New York City’s Union Square is a unique destination, with a greenmarket, ample seating, and open spaces commonly used for protest and performance, alike. A 2010 street reconfiguration created new pedestrian-friendly plazas, giving way to criss-crossable streets surrounding the square. Integrating activity around the edges of the space made it safer for cyclists and pedestrians, and created stronger linkages between the square and surrounding blocks.
Cities like Geneva, Switzerland have begun to remove traffic lights, replacing them with alternative signage like yield and stop signs. With these more intentional intersections, pedestrians, cyclists, and drivers are pushed toward more mindful interactions as they navigate the street.
In Amsterdam, intersections are able to guide thousands of cyclists and pedestrians through smoothly, even with limited signage. The built environment is designed for self-regulation and prompts cyclists to watch out for one another, as in this intersection captured by TJ Maguire, using body language and visual cues to co-navigate Amsterdam’s famed streets.