Twenty steps to pedestrian paradise – part 1

Are footbridges like this one built to benefit pedestrians? It allows people to cross the road safely distanced from cars, vans and trucks, so you might think this is pedestrian infrastructure. It is not: it is for the benefit of car drivers.

Someone sat down and weighed up the time lost by pedestrians in having to climb all those steps, cross the bridge and come down the other. They decided it was better to inconvenience people on foot – including disabled and elderly people with restricted mobility – than make drivers sit at traffic lights for any longer than they need to. These footbridges are there for motorists.

You can see judgements like this everywhere. People on foot are told to use dark, narrow, graffiti-covered, urine-soaked subways in order to spare drivers the inconvenience of slowing down or – horror of horrors – stopping. Traffic lights make pedestrians press a button and wait for a minute or more before deigning to allow them to cross, standing by the side of the road which drivers speed through. Shopping streets have narrowed pavements to cram in more space for cars to drive and park. Often our pavements themselves are used as car parks. Dark paths with overgrown vegetation create an atmosphere of fear. Pedestrian routes are left untreated in icy weather long after the roads have been gritted.

And that’s when pedestrians are even allowed. A walk from my neighbourhood to the area on the far side of the local river would once have taken five minutes. Two railway lines and a motorway now block the way and the same journey takes nearly half an hour. A bridge not far enough!

How much difference do all these barriers to walking really make? Let’s take one example and look at pedestrian lights. Transport expert David Levinson asked the question “how much further could someone walk in a city if she were not held up waiting for traffic lights?” It turns out that that a destination reachable in just 22 minutes a century ago would take 30 minutes to reach today. It gets even worse when we look at the number of places she can reach. She can access 46% fewer places today than she could walking for the same time in 1921. Whole swathes of a city put beyond reach by traffic lights.

We say pedestrians are at the top of the transport hierarchy, but our roads are designed to make their journeys slower, less pleasant and more dangerous.  People who would have chosen to walk then get into their cars, and so the downward spiral continues with ever-more congestion and pollution.

Walking is healthy, non-polluting, saves public money, is more efficient and – in town and city centres – can be quicker and easier than driving if we allow it to be. The evidence suggests that making an area cycling and walking-friendly also boosts it economically. Money spent to boost walking is money wisely invested.

In part 2 tomorrow, I’ll give you my twenty top tips to improve life for pedestrians.

* Iain Roberts is a Stockport councillor, LGA Peer and consultation, communications and public affairs consultant specialising in the built environment.

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  • I watched an interesting YouTube video [ “The (Failed) London Pedway Revolution” ], it contained an interesting point about 1960’s urban planning, that due in part to personal interests of ministers et al, the idea was prompted (and has become ‘normal’) that roads were for cars (the new shiny – look how modern and progressive we are…) and that ‘pedestrians’ were a nuisance and when actually catered for were regarded in some abstracted form. Interestingly, the current lockdown has seen the pendulum starting to swing back.

    There is a need for “intrinsically safe” non-car space, for example everyday routes into town centres etc. (ie. not ‘leisure’ only routes) on which young children can use (walk, run about, scoot, skateboard, cycle) without requiring close supervision due to the risk of passing cars and lorries. Just as there is a need for car space eg. motorways. The challenge is getting the balance right particularly in our towns and cities and their connections to their hinterland. [Aside: It used to get to me that whilst Milton Keynes did have an extensive redway network, it didn’t extend beyond the city limits, so the obvious cycle route to Cranfield Institute was on road via a motorway junction and busy country lane.

  • Here is an example where pedestrian safety was ignored.
    10 years ago I noticed that the lights for a pedestrian crossing took far too long (more than any other similar crossing) to allow pedestrians to cross and people were dashing across between traffic before the lights were in their favour. Having seen two pedestrians nearly knocked down, I complained to highways. I met an officer on site and he explained the lights were working as intended, because the main priority was to allow traffic to flow adequately from the traffic light junction at the end of the road and not be held up. When I said pedestrian safety should be priority, he said the official position was the pedestrians must obey the lights no matter how long, otherwise any accident will be their own fault.
    In spite of making a further complaint, nothing happened until 2 years ago when they changed it so that lights now react more quickly to pedestrians and as far as I can see, it only affects traffic flow through the nearby junction during short peak times when it would have got held up at the junction further along anyway.

  • James Fowler 11th Feb '21 - 1:35pm

    Interesting – I look forward to part two.

  • Peter Hayes 11th Feb '21 - 3:41pm

    The problem is not everyone is as mobile as campaigners think. I am slow with a stick, others have pushchairs and there are others with conditions that limit speed or mobility. I use the car for any distance.

  • Andrew Tampion 11th Feb '21 - 4:31pm

    I recently raised with my local Councillor 2 light controlled pedestrian crossings where the wait sign goes off without the green man appearing.
    I have been told that there is a pedestrian detection system which deactivates the system if it detects that there are no pedestrians waiting because sometimes pedestrian cross without waiting for the green man or change their minds and move away. I replied pointing out that there is no signage warning pedestrians that they had to stay withinthe textured area (which warns blind people that there is a crossing and allows them to orientate themselves to cross safely) and that a pedestrian might move away for other reason such as being accompanied by a child or to avoid being plashed by surface waited thrown up by passing car. I await a reply.

  • Jenny Barnes 11th Feb '21 - 5:17pm

    @peter hayes “not everyone is as mobile as campaigners think”
    Your implication is that campaigners are going to deprive everyone of their cars. Clearly this would be undesirable. It’s unnecessary as well. In holland, cars are still used widely where needed, for example by the mobility impaired or for for transporting difficult loads, but may have further to go than a more direct cycling or walking route. 50% active travel modal share in Holland, and wide use of cargo cycles and eg tricycles/mobility scooters.

  • Phil Beesley 11th Feb '21 - 6:22pm

    The pedestrian bridge is clearly designed by people who would never use it. It is designed for nobody.

    Those secure-fix tops on bleach bottles or late 20th century medicine dispensers? A pain to open for everyone, especially for those with a touch of arthritis, but a whiz for six year olds. It is difficult to design out problems.

    Designer teapots and kettles? There are reasons why designers developed spouts and jugs which reduced risk of harm. Sticking with the old thing is not always conservatism.

    Or a non-physical example: When you buy goods on the internet, the shipper is picked by the seller; wouldn’t it make more sense if the buyer picked a shipper who served them better?

    Having designed things, I know enough to observe how badly I can do things. If you talk to designers about the awful design choices in the world around them, without blame, you can have a sensible conversation.

  • Phil Beesley 11th Feb '21 - 8:23pm

    Iain Roberts: ‘Transport expert David Levinson asked the question “how much further could someone walk in a city if she were not held up waiting for traffic lights?” It turns out that that a destination reachable in just 22 minutes a century ago would take 30 minutes to reach today.’

    Just consider horse excrement in 1921! It was the start of the car age, post WWI but the Austin 7 hadn’t arrived yet. A walker in the city, navigated piles of mucky stuff.

    I’m not arguing that walking journeys in 2021 are over-laborious, just that 100 years ago, it wasn’t so neat and clean.

    Or consider architecture more generally than pedestrian schemes. Streets are created with underground ducts from electrical and ventilation systems blowing up on pedestrians. Heat — air temperature at human level on our streets — exacerbates all of our other environmental problems. Street design packs in pollution.

  • Helen Dudden 11th Feb '21 - 10:39pm

    I think that could be a ride that’s pretty horrendous, in a Power Wheelchair.

  • Peter Martin 12th Feb '21 - 3:25am

    At least motorists , if not cyclists , do tend to stop for pedestrians on zebra and pelican crossings in the UK. This is not the case even in much of Europe. We aren’t so bad on an international comparison.

    Cities in Asia can be a real nightmare for pedestrians. On many occasions i would have been more than happy to have the option of a footbridge!

  • Peter Davies 12th Feb '21 - 7:43am

    Even when they want to slow cars for roadworks they put the sign blocking the pavement so as not to obstruct the traffic.

  • Helen Dudden 12th Feb '21 - 8:43am

    I know also the barricades are never wide enough to pass, scaffolding is another.
    I think that the bridge does not meet the 1/20 that is supposed to be the guidelines for Power Wheelchairs and Wheelchair users. Imagine coming up the slope!
    As you say weather could be another issue.

  • Robin Grayson 12th Feb '21 - 2:07pm

    Well done Iain,
    Your pedestrian bridge is, I think, the one at Parswood on Kingsway in Manchester. To go technical a bit, it was installed in order to enable TIDAL FLOW along parts of Kingsway, to enable a cohort of traffic going just above the speed limit to go en masse through each set of traffic lights. A bit of a paradox, as it enabled pedestrians to cross in the quiet few minutes before the next surge arrived. Any vehicle going a bit slower would face a red light sooner or later. Any vehicle going a fit faster than the pack would also face a red light sooner of later. Therefore the traffic flowed steadily, smoothly and faster while the pedestrians also instinctively learned when it was safe to cross the dual carriageway by dint of natural selection. As for the pedestrian bridge, it is a design that could be dismantled if the tidal flow was a failure. As for the bridge, it is corroding badly due to water seeping in through the bitumen seal in the bolted segments finally went brittle. By the way, pedestrians do use the bridge from time to time if only to get to and from the large pub in a sub-sober condition.
    As a former Councillor on the Greater Manchester Transportation Capital Programme Subcommittee, I can vouch for this. Cheers, Robin

  • Peter Hayes 12th Feb '21 - 4:11pm

    @Jenny Barnes – the problem is pedestrian schemes tend to replace on street parking with car parks so those with limited mobility have further to walk. Net result for me is to avoid local shopping and use out of town.

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