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Walking reclaims center stage in cities across the world


New modes of transportation are transforming public spaces. By redesigning urban landscapes to prioritize walking, cities are putting pedestrians back on center stage.

Navigating sidewalks can often be a challenge, what with all the carelessly parked motorbikes, scooters and bicycles and sprawling café terraces. This is especially the case for people with reduced mobility or pushing a baby stroller. Yet walking accounts for 30% of all journeys in large cities, according to France’s environment ministry.

A link between different modes

Walking is a universal method of travel that connects one mode of transportation to another, such as train to tram or bus to train. Efficient multimodality is vital for any city that wants to make its transit system more sustainable. For this reason, walking is at the heart of urban mobility projects around the world.

To give public space back to pedestrians, cities have launched a wide and varied range of initiatives, including the installation of signs indicating the time needed to walk to a destination, the transformation of riverside roads into walkways, the enlargement of sidewalks and the creation of pedestrian zones in downtown neighborhoods. These projects are also a boon to tourism and business. Paris, for example, is planning to create a green, pedestrian precinct between Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower by 2024. The city is also thinking of converting a section of Place de la Concorde into a pedestrian zone in order to create a major urban walkway along the axis between the Tuileries Gardens and the Champs-Elysées.

Survival of the weakest

To facilitate the peaceful coexistence of multiple forms of transportation, cities are also designing multimodal areas that give priority to the weakest, i.e., pedestrians. These special areas – called “meeting spaces” or “shared spaces” – were invented in the Netherlands and are now spreading across Switzerland, France, Belgium and Austria. In these 20-kilometer-per-hour zones, where cars, public transit vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles, skateboards, and scooters exist side by side, pedestrians are even allowed to walk in the middle of the street.

In the United States, Philadelphia has developed shared spaces called curbless streets, which are designed like a paved yard. According to a study conducted by the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission, the layout increases user attentiveness, reduces speed and improves safety for all road users, while also promoting travel efficiency and supporting economic vitality. Philadelphia is emerging as a paradise for pedestrians. The existence of numerous narrow streets slows down drivers and calms traffic. At some intersections where traffic lights have been removed, the number of accidents has fallen by 25%. The absence of lights forces users to be more careful. In locations where traffic lights still exist, the city has reduced the waiting time for pedestrians.

A new way to walk

The “walking bus” is a popular way of getting kids to walk to and from school in Denmark, the United States and Canada. It consists of an adult and a group of children, often in pairs holding hands, who walk along a fixed route at a set time. It’s a great way for getting kids used to walking at a very young age.

Some cities cater to their pedestrians by providing them with umbrellas or strollers, or even storage facilities where they can check heavy items. The City of Nancy offers a mobile app designed to motivate residents to use their legs. The more they walk, the more points they earn, allowing them to receive discounts at participating stores. Japan too has unveiled technology aimed at helping pedestrians get around. Kobe, for example, has installed thousands of electronic tags throughout the city to guide users equipped with an RFID reader.

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