Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Mixed messages

So what is it, Stop or Yield?
This would be comical if it weren't a photograph.  This picture goes to the core of why urban design is so critical and yet so ridiculed when poorly practiced.  The interface between people and vehicles is difficult to legislate.  Engineers like to have everything settled in firm rules that will forever be followed.  In our minds, indecision leads to insecurity, so every contingency must be considered and legislated out of existence. 

People are far more flexible than that.  Uncertainty and attention are friends of the pedestrian and it turns out, they are also the friends of community building.  Isabelle de Pommereau wrote in the Christian Science Monitor about Bohmte, a German village that has become another example in the evolving “Shared Space” movement.  Bohmte removed all of the signage and signalization in its town square.  So what happened to the 13,000 vehicles per day that used that square?  They're still there, but they behave quite differently and the people who walk and drive there see their lives differently.  One of the residents had this to say:

“Two months into the experiment, ‘Instead of thinking, ‘It’s going to be red, I need to give gas, people have to slow down, to look to the right and the left, to be considerate,’ says Ms. Rubcic…  ‘The whole village has become more human. We look at each other, we greet each other,’ she says.”

That's a big deal.  I could go for that. 

Notice that this is a downtown--a very urban environment where people and cars should share the space.  There's no confusion about whether people should be trying to get somewhere because they're already there.  That's what the planners and architects are talking about when they talk about "placemaking."  These are the places you're trying to get to, not the road on the way there.  You can clearly see that the minute you enter the space.  No mixed messages here. 

It's far too easy to confuse the destination with the path.  My friend, Chuck Mahron is talking constantly about the danger of Stroads--vehicle pathways that look like through paths but directly serve destinations.  So which is it--a destination or a path?  People should be able to recognize from the character of the area that it is a destination, not a through path, but when we engineers optimize roadway environments for the automobile, it becomes confusing.  If the land use is a destination, then people shouldn't be driving at 45 mph (or even 35mph) in front of it.  They shouldn't even want to drive that fast. 

We make believe that this isn't a big a problem if the only mode of travel is vehicular, but that really isn't ever the case.  People walk.  Stroads are the places where pedestrians get killed most often.  It may not be many people, but walking people are vulnerable and engineers are ethically bound to protect vulnerable users, either by restricting them from the environment entirely (like with limited access highways) or by taking care to make sure they are adequately protected within the environment.  As engineers, we have protected the automobile users and encouraged the optimization of vehicular travel to the detriment of all other users.  It's not just us engineers--land use patterns are just as important and we land use planners need to be more rigorous about making a distinction between destinations and open spaces fit for paths.

That is going to need some rethinking or even some un-engineering.