Advocate of Pontevedra’s urban reform
1. Urban mobility
Mobility has done nothing but improve over the last few decades, both at the level of infrastructure and public transport. Urban mobility, however, has been an exception: one could even argue that it has worsened.
In our societies, mobility needs are increasingly higher: roads, highways, subways, railways, ports and airports keep expanding their capacity and providing solutions to challenging public demands either individually or collectively. The safety and comfort of these infrastructures and means of transport is undoubtedly improving.
This optimistic panorama immediately disappears the moment we enter the urban environment. Mobility problems derived from the transport of goods and passengers in the urban sphere are still unsolved; in fact, we could say that over the last few decades this situation has remained stationary at best, although, in general, it has deteriorated.
2. Is there a solution for urban mobility?
Some variables, several kinds of deep structural or conceptual underlying causes are still unsolved in urban mobility. Unless these problems are confronted, any measures taken will fail, as they have already done in the past.
There must be something, or several different things that have led to a situation where large investments and thoughtful measures do not result in positive effects on urban mobility. Many things have been done, but the results have been meagre.
The BlueZone and ORA parking schemes are only two instances in the long list of local and regional measures to improve transit issues, together with the introduction of reversible lanes, the adaptation of sidewalks, flyovers and underpasses, the design of traffic diversions, “going green” advocacy campaigns, mobility plans, smart traffic lights, congestion charges, restrictions on pedestrian flows, as well as on vehicle use by license plate number, improvements in the public transport network, among other initiatives. In certain very specific cases such solutions might have led to an amelioration, but the general problem of urban mobility and urban road safety stays as serious and unresolved as before.
When a problem like this, to which immense time and effort has been devoted using a diversity of approaches continues to have no apparent solution, perhaps it would probably be the time to realize that one or several basic conceptual or structural principles are not being addressed.
What is more, we are not directing our attention to issues such as the increasing public demand for mobility, the local and national vehicle populations, the concentration of social and economic activity in urban spaces or metropolitan areas, the growing distance between work centers and residential areas, the gradual shift in town planning, etc. These are unchanging parameters whose evolution is slow and complex to objectivize. In the past, there were attempts to build whole cities around the car, or at least entire neighborhoods, but nonetheless mobility problems did not go away.
3. Urban mobility priorities are reversed
The appropriate allocation of public spaces to various modes of urban mobility is a balancing act. Currently, we are suffering from an unfair pre-eminence of the individual motorized vehicle over the pedestrian. This is one of the root causes that must be addressed.
We are talking here about the deeply unfair disproportion, both real and official, in the consideration that is given to the different types of mobility, but also about the so-called “rights” acquired by the individual motorized vehicle, the passenger car, which could prove to be deleterious for any other mode of transport. This is yet another unresolved underlying problem that is weighing on the effectiveness of those measures that seek to improve urban mobility and safety, as well as to counteract the worrying decline in urban quality, the quality of life in urban environments.
Other modes of transport have been suffering the consequences of this inexplicable imbalance and all of them have seen their functionality affected: the bicycle, public transport, pedestrians, and even the train and the subway, although much more indirectly. Walkers and bikers were hit the strongest by the predominance of the individual motorized vehicle. In fact, the use of the bicycle is trying to be encouraged in most modern cities, after being almost eradicated by the aggression of cars. Pedestrians kept losing ground to the dominion of passenger cars, to the point of becoming marginal. Today, pedestrian-centered cities are becoming possible.
4. Pedestrian mobility
Pedestrian mobility is a healthier and more natural way to move around urban environments, even more so when the distances and times required do not exceed a certain limit, for example 3 km or forty minutes. Getting this kind of displacements to be done on foot stands as a decisive factor for the overall improvement of urban mobility. When distances exceed those pre-established limits, the pedestrian mode should still be at the center of intermodality.
Pedestrian mobility is the most natural and essential type, the first in order of importance and irreplaceable by other types of mobility. All artificial forms of mobility may be substituted within the city network by their functional equivalents; however, that is not the case with walking.
The emergence of motorized mobility represented an incomparable advancement that made it possible for people to reach almost any destination in progressively shorter times, but its functionality was so pervasive that it created the illusion that more natural forms of displacement could be superseded.
Walking a few miles a day, apart from being natural and healthy, is inherent to the human condition, with the possible exception of physical disability, but in parallel to these important features, going on foot is the most logical way to move around in an urban environment, at least within a reasonable range of distances and times. Wherever the pedestrian mode cannot reach on its own, it is still possible to resort to intermodality.
5. The urban road network
Pedestrian mobility should be given at least the same importance as motorized mobility in terms of the design, maintenance and management of urban road networks. This is a real challenge for local authorities and citizens alike if it is their intention to restore the natural order among the different types of mobility: the needs of pedestrians must be incorporated as a fundamental variable
So far, the efforts and attention have almost exclusively focused on the improvement of individual motorized traffic, while the issue of pedestrian mobility was left aside; therefore, the urban road network, as had previously occurred in the case of bicycle users, became dysfunctional and inhospitable for pedestrians, which, in turn, led to further restrictions in pedestrian mobility.
Sidewalks were much too small to allow pedestrians to walk comfortably, barriers were erected and detours put in place. Motorized vehicles gradually conquered public spaces and sat at the top of the mobility hierarchy, tasteless flyovers and underpasses substituted open-air environments, public lighting catered for the needs of the road network and left people in the dark. These were only a few of the consequences of this line of thought: giving absolute priority to motorized mobility.
Finally, a cursory look at the newspaper archives will be very telling of the preponderance of road networks: while poorly maintained pavements cause social outrage, it is infrequent to find a similar reaction when it is pedestrians that are affected by infrastructural decay. Another symptom: repair works are a well-known source of complaints because they affect the traffic fluxes; however, pedestrians, who tend to suffer them the most, are seldom mentioned.
6. Orderly coexistence of different modes
The different types of mobility, particularly the road and pedestrian networks, should be treated with equanimity in urban spaces: road traffic should never exceed half of the total street area.
The principle of treating pedestrian and road traffic equally must be put into practice consistently. If the acceptance of this principle does not go hand in hand with the enforcement of concrete measures, the initiatives taken will be fruitless.
While design and maintenance improvements in the characteristics of pedestrian traffic networks are peremptory, the fundamental questions are still unanswered. It would be difficult to provide concrete technical specifications to cover this immense casuistry, but very easy to establish a clear and fair principle: in those streets where pedestrians and vehicles occupy clearly distinguishable spaces, the surface area dedicated to the needs of motorized traffic and parking should not be more than 50%.
This should be understood as a norm of motorized traffic, since the other modes will be sharing just the other half. Street lighting and furniture, bins, waste containers, overhangs, terraces, among other elements, take up almost 2 meters across. If we added bike lanes, the space for pedestrians would be reduced to a minimum of 2.50 meters across. Should the section of the road prove insufficient, the only alternative would be to design a single platform, apply traffic calming measures and establish pedestrian priority.
7. The “right” to park
The so-called right to park on public roads must give way to a collaborative use of public space by all mobility modes and therefore the loss of the tacit privilege that has become a monopoly of vehicles. Regulations need to be enforced concerning the uses of public space and collective interest should prevail over individual concerns.
The assumed principle that parking surface is a scarce commodity and that it must be shared equitably tends to bring forward a sequence of actions that could be summarized as follows: once all the space available for public parking has been occupied, this commodity continues to be scarce, thus the pedestrian network must be invaded to cater for the needs of motorized traffic alone, regardless of urban quality and mobility. Instead, the approach should be radically different: public space is scarce and much sought after; thus, its distribution should be equitable taking all modes into consideration.
8. The concept of “need”
Compatibility, that is, reaching a balance between car use in urban environments and the consequences of its abuse, means setting up clear, sharp and socially-aware operational solutions centered on the concept of “need”. Traffic intensity should always be manageable.
There is a universal consensus on the fact that motorized traffic in cities may cause serious prejudices and cohabitation problems: air and noise pollution, saturation of urban roads, congestion, severe discomfort for alternative types of mobility, etc. Nevertheless, cars are part of our civilization and have been a very substantial technological advance that cannot be taken away from the urban environment. The solution to this dichotomy should derive from the rationalization of its use.
The fundamental question would be to agree upon a common definition of what is reasonable, equitable and feasible: the concept of “need” or that of the “essential service”. The point would be to draw the line between these individual and collective needs and to determine when they are justifiable, and therefore allowed, to resort to motorized mobility, and when it would be more advisable to act otherwise.
9. On speed
Moderate top speeds should be set for all urban areas, especially if the coexistence of several mobility modes might lead to accidents and, above all, to enforce the necessary regulations.
High speed traffic in the city, a place where the unexpected is quite likely to happen –a child walking distractedly, a pedestrian crossing hurriedly, a vehicle taking the wrong turn, an obstacle appearing out of nowhere–, may become one of the main sources of accidents with dire consequences, a kind of Russian roulette that should be banished. With very few exceptions, a citywide speed limit of 30 km/h would seem appropriate, ensuring that safety hazards are suppressed and that the levels of air and noise pollution decline sharply.
However, the effective implementation of these measures is key. A speed limit road sign might not be enough if 10-15% of drivers do not abide by the rules, putting other users in danger and increasing noise pollution. At present, one of the most effective ways to prevent infringements is to build physical elements of traffic calming at strategic points in the road network.
Furthermore, the dangers and insecurity of urban roads should not be measured only in terms of the number of accidents and casualties; the feeling of insecurity is not as tragic as the effects on the victims, but it seriously affects the quality of city living and limits the autonomy of children, who can no longer explore their environment freely.
10. Social dynamics
Recovering pedestrian mobility and finding a balance between the various modes should not be relegated to the implementation of long-term plans; that would be stalling the process and postponing the provision of solutions to pressing problems.
When a process is started with the aim of realigning the uses of urban public spaces and re-balancing the modes of motorized and pedestrian mobility, varying degrees of reaction and opposition should be expected, in some way reminiscent of that maxim frequently heard in the times of the Franco regime: “there will be democracy when Spaniards are ready for it”.
Strong opposition to the re-balancing of mobility tends to be a minority view, but this does not mean it is negligible or that it should be ignored. Statements like: “yes, but as long as there is a parking lot”, “yes, but as long as there is sufficient consensus” or “yes, but as long as the public transport network is expanded” may become an insurmountable stumbling block. The mode of individual motorized mobility, predominant and privileged, refuses to lose its consolidated pre-eminence even in the interest of general mobility, safety and urban quality improvements.
11. Sixteen years of experience
The improvement in urban quality, mobility and safety are remarkable when the intervention is carried out in accordance with the criteria described above.
In Pontevedra, the implementation process is already very advanced, because the whole city has limited top speeds to 30 km/h and built the necessary physical barriers. When the basic principles and concepts are clear and their application consistent, the process is smoothly brought to fruition. A few important conclusions may be drawn during the initial stages of development, which may prove useful to guide all stakeholders through the project.
Quality standards in urban, pedestrian and cyclist mobility are very high; however, the city environment and its essential functions are not negatively affected by this shift in priorities. Quite on the contrary, the city becomes safer, more attractive and works better. Anyone who “needs” to use motorized vehicles to carry passengers or goods is given greater freedoms and more flexibility than before.
According to the 2011 Local Mobility Study, two thirds of urban displacements were done walking, although the number of cars could continue to be reduced even further, given that too many vehicles were still passing through the city center to reach their destination.
Most of this motorized transport was not justifiable under the principle of “essential needs”. In addition, the accident rates are kept at extremely low levels, to the point that there have been no casualties involving pedestrians for the last 15 years in the areas where interventions were effected.
12. Full inversion of priorities
Our experience shows that the solution to mobility and urban safety issues has to do with placing pedestrians at the top of the priority hierarchy, higher than any other mode of transportation.
By prioritizing pedestrian mobility, applying the necessary restrictions to motorized traffic, making strategic decisions on parking regulations, and clearly establishing the concept of mobility “need”, traffic intensity may become more manageable, the public transport network can function more efficiently and cyclist mobility should become more comfortable, fostering the peaceful coexistence of different modes through traffic calming measures, as well as the appropriate redesign of footpaths and bicycle lanes.
It cannot be argued that each city has its peculiarities and its defining characteristics, but there does not seem to be any compelling reason for these general guidelines to be equally valid for all cities. In fact, by dividing larger cities into smaller sectors and then applying specific interventions in select but interconnected urban areas, it would be possible to set the foundations of longer term urban mobility plans while preventing the emergence of unexpected bottlenecks at key intersections.
13. As a postscript
In a recent report entitled “What do cities sound like?”, which analyzed large areas of the city of Pontevedra using the criteria described above, the authors reached the conclusion that the predominant sounds were the chirrups of birds and the voices of children playing. It may seem idyllic, bucolic, strange or even unrealistic, but the truth is that such an oversimplification has a lot to do with everyday life in a city built for the people. What surprises visitors the most, particularly those used to the din of the metropolis, is the enjoyable ambient noise anywhere they go.
The advantages in terms of urban quality and road safety after following these relatively simple steps are so obvious that they eventually offset any kind of initial reluctance. We truly believe that building a city for the people is the right way to increase mobility and safety in urban environments. This can be achieved by putting pedestrians first.