Mobility Walking The Importance of Pedestrian Safety: How to Make Your City Walkable

The Importance of Pedestrian Safety: How to Make Your City Walkable

Metka Novak
Nature lover who finds excitement in exploring new cities, discovering new things, and writing about sustainability. Also in eating ice-cream — ice-cream's good. In my free time I enjoy travelling, running, and walking in nature. in

Hello, fellow pedestrian. Yes, you! We may forget that we’re all pedestrians at times, as we’re so used to getting behind a wheel, jumping onto a bus or even straddling a bike. However, walking is our basic human need and we deserve, nay – demand, a safe place to do it. Jim Walker from WALK21 and Mário Alves from the International Federation of Pedestrians are here to clear the air on pedestrian safety and give some insight into why and how to make cities pedestrian-friendly.

We spoke with representatives of two of the bigger organisations in the field of walkability: Jim Walker, founder of WALK21 (an international charity dedicated to ensuring the right to walk and making sure it’s enjoyable and encouraged), and Mário Alves, Secretary-General of the International Federation of Pedestrians (an umbrella organisation of NGOs around the world working for pedestrians and liveable public space). In the following, you will find the most important takeaways on pedestrian safety, shared by these two experts.

Why Pedestrian Safety Matters

Everyone is a pedestrian, with or without the help of a mobility aid. Walking is very natural to us and therefore self-evident – we don’t think about it. Still, people need to walk, we do it every day. To do that, however, we need a safe space.

According to the World Health Organization’s report, more than 270,000 pedestrians die every year as a result of road traffic accidents. Hence, the design of infrastructure is crucial when it comes to the safety of more vulnerable road users. The WHO lists footpaths, cycling lanes and safe crossing points as important elements to reduce the risk of injury and/or death among pedestrians and cyclists.

Safe spaces to walk are necessary – to cross the road and to be separated from traffic and other vehicles. Jim points out:

It’s just about having that respect in the way that cities are designed and managed. The walking stage of a trip is essential for any mode. But if you can’t access public transport on foot, you won’t have public transport users. If you can’t get from the front door of the hospital, or your retail experiences, of your workplace, even to your car, then the system fails. We have to manage a safe system for all people and not just some modes.”

Walkability is a sign of a liveable city. We are a sociable species – we like to socialise and talk to our neighbours or residents to create bonds with fellow citizens. Activities that can all be accessed through walking – not by driving separately in private cars. A walkable city is a sign of a liveable place, a sign of sustainability.

Reasons for Lack of Pedestrian Safety

The solution to this issue seems easy enough: just (re)design streets which are better for pedestrians. If only this was true! Unfortunately, there are various challenges we need to consider regarding the implementation of safe infrastructure for all. Following are the three most occurring challenges. For a more detailed list and explanations, click here.

Fear

Motorised vehicles, a.k.a. “machines that can kill”, as Mário refers to them, are something most pedestrians are afraid of. People are afraid to cross the street as the sheer speed of the cars can seriously injure or even kill a person. We seem to forget cities were first created for pedestrians.

Cities were made for people to walk, and for people to live, and to exchange goods, and to exchange visits and ideas.”

– Mário Alves

Noise and Pollution

Besides the danger, two other contributing factors why people don’t like to walk in a city full of cars are the noise and pollution produced by cars. These are two of the reasons why cities are uncomfortable and unwalkable. People develop a dislike to walking and “start thinking that they should buy a car and contribute to the problem and not try to solve it,” as Mário explains.

The ongoing pandemic COVID-19 has only helped highlight this problem. It has proved we over-rely on cars to get anywhere, no matter the distance. But as Jim noted, once you’ve got restrictions on travel, on the ability to walk to the nearest store, health care, to fulfil essential needs etc., people realise how important proximity and walkability truly are.

“The ability to walk in our neighbourhoods, and to connect to our essential services, has been recognised to be absolute key.”

– Jim Walker

A recent Harvard study examined the potential connection between air pollution and the increased risk of dying from a COVID-19 infection. The research discovered that the high death rates seen in the north of Italy match the high levels of air pollution.

After years of legal campaigning, in October 2020, for the first time, a court in the UK recognised air pollution as a reason for a child’s death and, therefore, created a precedent for the UK (and Europe) to start seeing air pollution from motorised vehicles as a major liability for cities and local authorities.

Image credit: Pexels / Zen Chung

How to Create Safe Cities for Pedestrians?

This all being said, just what exactly does it take for a city to be pedestrian-friendly (read here) and how exactly does one go about creating such a city? Let’s look at some helpful pointers:

Attain a Quality of the Walking Experience

The key element is the quality of the walking experience. Merely providing space to walk for the sake of it is not good enough. You have to make streets safe and keep pedestrians out of harm’s way to get people moving. For this, we have to consider different variables such as vehicular speed, noise pollution, air pollution, drainage, climate, etc. There’s good and bad everywhere, but if people aren’t out in the streets, it’s a good indication of an inefficient system and an urgent sign to change proactively.

Walking is a good indicator of a successful street – especially if streets have a diversity of pedestrians and if people are still choosing to walk, despite the availability of other affordable options.

Share Institutional Responsibility

It’s important to engage people with different levels of responsibility, from police, transport planners, garbage collectors, traffic engineers, to the maintenance team and so on. It’s about collective accountability, about leadership and coordination for managing the pedestrians’ experience. It isn’t just one individual group’s responsibility to provide safety in cities, it’s a whole network’s job.

Include All People from the Very Beginning

And don’t forget about citizens with different abilities. People need to feel heard and seen. They need to be the priority, they have to be involved in their city’s plans. Residents with different abilities are often overlooked when it comes to street design standards, but in reality, the whole society benefits from complete inclusion.   

“A society that includes people from the beginning in the design is much better than the one that has created separate systems for people.

– Jim Walker

The truth is people with less income, children, the elderly, and people with different abilities all walk more – they sometimes don’t have another choice. The essential question here is: ‘what do they need?’. The obligation falls back on the government to ask the community about their needs, to listen and to respond. Designing infrastructure that is accessible for all (e.g. women with children, people with different abilities) is a key element in making cities walkable and safe, and this is only possible if everyone participates in the planning.

But how exactly can we make cities participatory? This article explains it to you perfectly.

Image credit: Pexels / Kaboompics

Be Bold!

As a citizen, be bold and focus on the things that matter. Be vocal about it.

“Pedestrians consist of 100% of the population, we are simultaneously 100% of voters, we can potentially be a very powerful voice – yet, we lack a political identity compared to, for example, the cycling community.”

– Mário Alves

Read more about changing behaviour and convincing others to implement positive changes here.

It Can Be Done…

Don’t be discouraged. Let these examples of cities successfully implementing pedestrian-friendly measures serve as a boost for your motivation:

  • Hong Kong: provided elderly and people with different abilities with more green light traffic time to allow them to safely cross busy roads.
  • Helsinki and Oslo: implemented Vision Zero, along with plans to become car-free and their investment in walkability, to reduce traffic-related injuries. By reducing the driving speed limit in cities, increasing parking charges and overall making it more difficult to drive a motorised vehicle in the cities, they have managed to achieve zero pedestrian fatalities in 2019.
  • Pontevedra: strategically redesigned the infrastructure in favour of pedestrians (created wider sidewalks for pedestrians and narrower roads for motorised vehicles, shut down surface level car parks, etc.) to reach an almost-entirely car-free city. Read more about how they managed to achieve this here.
  • Dublin: pedestrianised streets and closed them for cars, widened many footpaths in the middle of COVID-19 pandemic to create a more walkable city. Read more about the inspirational case here.

It’s cities like these that prove small changes definitely go a long way.

To Cut a Long Story Short

Achieving pedestrian safety may seem like a daunting task, but there’s nothing more fulfilling than walking to your favourite spot in the park on a warm, sunny day, sitting down and noticing others walking by. Nothing beats that feeling of safety – which is achievable outside of parks as well if we apply the same principles (i.e. green landscape connecting us to nature, car-free zone and design created specifically for pedestrians).

Walking safely in our basic human need – it’s something every citizen of a well-managed and respected city requires and deserves. Pedestrians may oftentimes be overlooked and shadowed by motorised vehicles, but it is up to us to change that and strive for a safe environment for all road users.

If you’d like to know more about the importance of walkable cities, click here.

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