Saturday, March 21 2009 @ 03:00 PM UTC
Contributed by: B' Spokes
Wide, tree-lined sidewalks. A row of parked cars to buffer pedestrians from traffic. A physically separated bike lane. These are just a few of the qualities I and other urban design types tend look for when defining a 'good' street, meaning one pleasant and safe for walking and biking.
Imagine my surprise then, when I returned this past winter to Tokyo, land of my upbringing and pedestrian and transit mecca, and realized that the streets I walked every day as a kid looked nothing like the "complete streets" I had come to idealize.
Yet, despite all these supposedly less-than-desirable conditions, people in Tokyo walk. A lot. My family was caught in pedestrian gridlock on the day after New Year's, in the shopping district of Harajuku. There were so many people trying to walk through a (admittedly narrow) space that we literally could not move for ten minutes.
In New York, I complain that the four blocks between my apartment and the subway have no street trees. But in Tokyo, I have no problem walking fifteen minutes basically IN the street to the train station, with nary a street tree in sight the entire way.
In New York, I rarely ride my bicycle because even on quieter side streets (forget about avenues), I'm in constant fear of being hit from behind by a speeding SUV or doored by one of the cars parked along the curb. In Tokyo, children ride their bikes to school, housewives to the grocery store, commuters to the train station, and nobody bothers with helmets.
So why the differences in environments? The first, and perhaps most obvious, reason for this is the well-known traffic engineering concept of "shared space." This idea states that having pedestrians, bicyclists and drivers share the space of the roadway with little separation results in improved safety for all because it forces various road users to constantly be aware of each other. Motorists drive slower and round corners cautiously because they expect pedestrians or bicyclists to pop up out of blind spots. Pedestrians and bicyclists have priority, but are aware that cars may be coming at any time, and move out of their way.
We talk about built environment a lot, but rarely about driver behavior, and when we do, we talk about manipulating that behavior through the built environment. But there are other factors that influence how drivers behave.