Caminhos Cruzados: Safer cities for pedestrians are safer cities for all

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Caminhos Cruzados is a virtual debate to discuss one topic from different perspectives. We invite two guests to answer to three questions — but they also comment on the other guest’s response. This is an effort to build a rich dialogue by revealing differences and similarities between each point of view but also unique visions on the topic.

Safer cities for pedestrians are safer cities for everyone

With Skye Duncan, director of the Global Designing Cities Initiative, and Marcelo Cintra, coordinator of Observatório da Mobilidade Urbana de Belo Horizonte, an initiative of the Belo Horizonte Transportation Department — BHTRANS, and founder of Desvelocidades.

1. Why is it important to discuss road safety when talking about pedestrian mobility?

Skye Duncan: Road safety is one of the top 10 causes of death globally and almost half of these deaths are vulnerable users, including pedestrians, cyclists, and motorcyclists, so this is fundamental to discuss when we consider pedestrian mobility. It is also the leading cause of death for those who are entering the prime of their life — from ages 15–29, and what’s even more shocking than these statistics, is the fact that these deaths are preventable! We know exactly what to do to avoid these deaths and to save these lives — and it is not rocket science! We must reduce the vehicular speeds in our urban areas, and design our cities in a manner that put’s people first.

As pedestrians, we don’t have the same level of protection, or ‘armour’ as a vehicle and our bodies can only take a limited about of force to survive the impact of a crash, so we must design environments and systems that allow people to make mistakes as they move through their cities without having to pay with their lives. Without prioritizing pedestrian mobility in every urban street design, it is difficult to design a safe walking environment. But with this as our top priority, we not only make our cities safer for pedestrians to move through each day, we make healthier, happier, more sustainable, resilient, and equitable cities.

MC: Skye is totally right! Whether due to the high number of “accidents” (an inappropriate name for something that could be avoided) or the vulnerability of people walking on the streets, they become easy prey in the violent traffic struggle. The two concepts of this “simple science”, as Skye says, are already well known and widespread by many: #citiesforpeople and #lowspeed. But talking is much easier than changing the cities and their streets.

Marcelo Cintra: Foot mobility has lost its space (now restricted to sidewalks) and time (few seconds to cross) to the most dominant transportation mean (the car!). This fact turned people who walk in major traffic victims, since all need to cross and use streets at some point. In these spaces — the streets — an uneven battle is set, where we are always the most fragile for exposing our bodies, we are made victims and threatened.

However, walking is, above all, a synonym of freedom and autonomy. The fact that we can come and go to and by wherever we want — enjoying lights and shadows, sounds and smells, without the need of “parking”, and in contact with other people — makes walking into a very pleasant and democratic way of moving around. Although it is the most efficient and effective mode of transportation for short distances and for integrating different means (complementing almost all of them), this freedom behind walking is, for most of us, blocked by physical barriers (some of them impossible to overcome) and by the lack of comfort and safety (personal and from road traffic). Therefore, discussing road safety has a double role of both saving lives and also creating the feeling of safety for those who chose to walk and enjoy the city.

SD: I couldn’t agree more! With walking as our most fundamental form of mobility, and one of the first things we learn to do as a child, to be able to walk safely in the city must be a basic human right. As Marcelo mentions, in order for this to not only be safe, but be enjoyable, we must consider how the pedestrian moves through the sidewalk, how they experience the space in three-dimensions with all of their human senses. It reminds us that there are many stakeholders that play a role in creating the space of the street and sidewalk that are collectively responsible for the policies, designs, implementation, and ongoing maintenance that impact how safe and walkable our cities are. This was one of the driving considerations behind a document we produced with a multi-agency team at the NYC government a few years ago — called ‘Shaping the Sidewalk Experience’. This addressed not only the ground plane of what we called the ‘sidewalk room’, but the building edges, roadside plane, and canopy above. Together, these planes shape how enticing our streets are to walk on and how safe our daily journeys are.

2. Which are the best experiences/initiatives around the world that improve pedestrian safety?

Skye Duncan: I am not sure that any one city has it perfectly right at this point, but there are many cities making great efforts toward improving pedestrian safety. The Vision Zero (initiated in Sweden) and Sustainable Safety (initiated in the Netherlands) programs are proactive safety programs being adopted by an increasing number of cities around the world. The premise of such programs is that loss of life is unacceptable, and their goal is preventing all serious road crashes. But we also see cities like Paris striving to create more spaces for people, restricting vehicular access in the city center, and reducing speeds. Melbourne has retrofitted their back alleys into thriving active laneways during the last few decades and removed 2% of parking each year in order to improve the walkability and safety in the inner city. Efforts in New York have demonstrated that improved street design and pedestrian facilities at thousands of intersections will save lives, and they’re measuring this. And street transformations happening in Bogotá and Addis Ababa are also slowly starting to set trends in their regions for safer street designs. It will also be interesting to see how upcoming efforts in Barcelona to rethink access for different users to their famous grid will make interior neighborhood streets that are more livable, safer, and walkable.

MC: Perhaps the only cities in the world that can say that they “solved” their pedestrian safety problems are those that have no cars. The unknown Afuá on the island of Marajó in Pará (northern state in Brazil) and the hyper-known Venice in Italy are small pedestrian paradises, but there are many small cities around the world that defy common sense and show the potential and the beauty of cities without cars (#carfree, www.carfree.fr, www.carfree.com, www.worldcarfree.net).

The experiences quoted by Skye show that not only european cities are able to do much for their pedestrians, as in the case of Bogota and Addis Ababa (which I did not know). I know that the United Nations has a good program for shared streets and that street sharing also exists in brazilian slums and communities, as well in african, indian and foreign cities outside Europe and they can teach the rest of the world a lot too.

Marcelo Cintra: I could highlight many different initiative. Generally, experiences that consider the space used by people on foot as a network that connects plazas, sidewalks, crossings, shared streets and even some commercial galleries used as shortcuts in downtown. This happened in the proposal for the new Master Plan for Belo Horizonte.

Initiatives that respect the sidewalk space, with adequate dimension and pavement, avoiding falls, are also important. In addition, improving crossings are also crucial and initiatives include promoting awareness on pedestrian priority in unsignalized crosswalks (after “Paz no Transito” program, in Brasilia, other cities created similar campaigns), installing signals (lighting up crossings, or traffic and warning lights), and any other project that includes increasing time for pedestrian crossing.

Other types of initiatives should also be highlighted. For example,reducing speed limits can also increase pedestrian safety. This could be done through speed traps and other traffic calming measures, like creating the Zones 30, 20 and 10km/h. And it is also the case of civic society groups and associations focused on pedestrians, that design initiatives and campaigns to reduce speed limits, such as Como Anda and Desvelocidades.red.

SD: It is wonderful to hear that these considerations are at the heart of the Belo Horizonte master plan. It has been over 15 years since I was last there so I might have to come back for another visit J Please keep us posted with this work and I hope that as projects are being implemented, the city is able to collect before and after data on the safety improvements in order to build some more evidence and help to share best practices with other cities. This is such an urgent problem and we don’t have time to keep reinventing the wheel! People are so often scared when their neighborhoods are being changed, and those of us who are involved in shaping the built environment all need to do a much better job at explaining why these changes are being made, and getting their input into the nuances of how to apply these best practice strategies so that they make sense for each individual place. Metrics and evaluation of built projects can certainly help with building that narrative as to why things are changing, and that these efforts are being made to improve quality of life and safety for everyone.

3. What are we still missing in order to make cities totally safe for pedestrians?

Skye Duncan: Answer I still think we are missing a global premise that people must come first in how we design our cities. This is something that we have been trying to shift in the recently released Global Street Design Guide, funded as a part of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Initiative for Global Road Safety. This work acknowledges that enforcement and education are important when considering road safety, but without rethinking, reimagining, and redesigning our most fundamental network of public space — our streets — then it will be difficult to reach a global goal of zero deaths on our streets. Basic infrastructure, that doesn’t need to be expensive, must become a top priority for cities in every corner of the world. Making sure our children, our elderly, and our people with disabilities, can navigate their cities and reach their everyday destinations safety is fundamental for economically thriving, environmentally sustainable, and livable cities. Beyond shared surfaces and pedestrian-only streets, a few of the elements of the street that should be checked for in every design include accessible sidewalks (with ramps and no obstructions), marked pedestrian crossings that are frequently spaced (every 80–100m ideally) and crossing distances that are as short as possible (through tighter turning radii, refuge islands, and compact intersections). Making these changes everywhere will take a while, but we know where to start:

  • Policies and guidelines must be updated to reduce speeds and improve street designs.
  • Practitioners must be trained to design spaces that consider the many functions of our urban streets and to shift our mobility goals from moving ‘cars’ to moving ‘people’.
  • Communities must be consulted to help inform priorities and direct investments.
  • Projects must be implemented to demonstrate proof of practice, and,
  • Metrics must be collected to build the evidence base and allow cities to learn from the successes and failures of others.

By shifting how we measure of the success of our streets, we can demand that these spaces improve our quality of life, promote health and safety, improve our economic and environmental sustainability, and that they do this in a fair and equitable manner. We will only achieve these multiple goals, by putting the pedestrian first and by judging every street design from this perspective.

MC: Design cities for people and Vision Zero are important guiding concepts that bring great potential for transforming the future of people walking through cities. Good public spaces, where everyone walks or circulates in their wheelchairs in an autonomous and safe way (concepts of universal accessibility), are fundamental, but in Brazil, perhaps it still takes a while to be widely accepted and effectively realized. So, here, we need to find shortcuts to the process proposed by the Global Street Design Guide, even though we have already advanced in some policies (Urban Mobility and Accessibility) and plans.

In this sense, I stand for that prioritizing the dialogue with the communities is essential to activate desires and the possibility of appropriation of the streets by the people. The hegemonic processes of producing cities for cars, developed in symbiosis with the emptying of streets in some places due to the insecurity (real and imaginary), must be broken! Giving light and voice to people and communities that have resisted cycling, walking and playing in the streets (by their own desire or lack of economic access) is fundamental to make them feel valued and to encourage them not to seek solutions in cars and motorcycles. It is essential to show that brazilian cities still have a “pedestrian city” that is muffled by the “motorized city”, since walking represents a third of daily trips, even in metropolises like São Paulo. Highlight walking as a mode of transport is one key issue of the Desvelocidades, besides, of course, lowering speed limits.

Marcelo Cintra: We still have a lot to do. We are still missing actions of different levels and types, like the ones mentioned before. But we also lack solutions for those stumbles and falls, very common among elderly and people with mobility impairment who are using the public healthcare system but whose injuries do not show on official road traffic accidents records.

If there’s a lack of better designed public spaces to pedestrians through both physical improvements (paving, dimensions) and better use conditions (signage, lighting, landscaping etc), there is still a larger need to reduce speed limits. And, in parallel, as a consequence from previous actions, in a virtuous cycle, we are missing people in the streets, which would make them safer in many ways.

SD : That’s’ so true! While over 1.25 million people die on streets around the world each year, another 20–50 million people suffer non-fatal injuries, leaving many people with life-long disabilities. This can make it ever harder for these people to get around or to earn an income for their family, and adds a great cost on public health systems. The up-front costs of constructing a street should really be considered with regard to the benefits its design will confer throughout its lifespan. Cost impacts of street design should be considered for individuals through value of travel time, public transportation access, fuel costs, and individual health, while the larger externalized cost to society can be examined through expenses such as those related to traffic crashes, hospital costs, negative environmental impacts, and congestion. Maybe that’s how our future budgets could look for street projects in order to help cities understand the great value of prioritizing pedestrian safety.

Skye Duncan is the Director of the Global Designing Cities Initiative at the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) where she has been leading a multi-year program funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies to develop the new Global Street Design Guide and to provide technical assistance to cities around the world on safe and sustainable street design.

Skye is an urban designer with over a decade of experience in architecture, urban design, planning and landscape architecture, and spent seven years working as a Senior Urban Designer at the New York City Department of City Planning in their Office of the Chief Urban Designer.

Skye has worked professionally as an International Urban Design Consultant in Brazil, Colombia, Canada and New Zealand, and has been an Associate Professor at Columbia University in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. She graduated as a Fulbright Scholar at Columbia in the Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design program and has a Bachelor of Architecture with Honors from Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand.

Marcelo Cintra is, first of all, pedestrian, cyclist and urban citizen. He is also PhD in Geography by the Federal University of Minas Gerais — UFMG (2015), having as its theme the relationship between Urban Space Production and Urban Mobility. He has a degree in Civil Engineering (USP, 1986), specialization in Public Administration (Fundação Santo André, 1992) and Management Development (FEA USP, 2000). As a researcher, he carried out studies in Paris, focusing on eco-cities and temporal policies. He worked for 24 years in the Transport and Traffic Company of Belo Horizonte S.A. — BHTRANS between 1993 and 2017, where he held management and advisory positions in urban mobility planning. Since 2013, he acts voluntarily in social movements related to urban mobility, cycling and policies and, recently, created an activist network called Desvelocidades, which promotes actions in favor of low speeds cities, shared streets and citizens who use and take ownership of public spaces.

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