The ‘World Car Free Day’ is an important event to give people an idea of what their city could be like, if we stopped allocating most of the valuable public space to the least effective mode of transport, the car. But why limit this experience to just one day per year? And can this also work in a true megacity like Tokyo? Let’s take a look.
Now, more than ever, it is important to give people enough space when they visit public places. Yet oftentimes, requests for more pedestrian-friendly planning of city streets is met with concerns about a negative impact on the traffic flow and congestion. Especially when older cities with a tight and pedestrian-friendly street network are compared to more modern cities that were planned for motorised traffic almost from the beginning, it can seem that those modern cities are just not made to give so much space to pedestrians without major drawbacks.
Let’s use a modern megacity for comparison to disprove this false conception. The greater Tokyo metro area has a population of over 37 million people, making it the largest city in the world, population-wise. Still, over 9 million people live in the dense inner city. Here, streets form a grid pattern similar to American cities, making a comparison possible and the result a good indicator for the possibility of such an event in modern cities around the world.
First, A Little Bit of History
Tokyo or Edo, as it was called originally, has existed for a very long time. But the Tokyo we know today is largely a result of impressive reconstruction efforts during the 20th century. Two major catastrophic events, the Great Kanto earthquake in 1923 and the fire bombings of WW2 in 1945, nearly razed all of the city to the ground. This difficult situation also gave the opportunity for the city to be rebuilt in a modern way.
Especially during the period of economic growth in the 50s and 60s, the number of cars grew and with that, the number of accidents with pedestrians – reaching a sad all-time high in the 70s. This prompted concerns for pedestrian safety as well as environmental concerns. In response, Tokyo invested in first-class public transport infrastructure, and pedestrian zones were created so people can have a safe and enjoyable stroll or shopping experience. In addition, according to the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, developing nearby commercial areas, lessen air and noise pollution, and serving as a catalyst to change road traffic from car-first to pedestrian-first are also goals of these events. But not only in Tokyo did planners see the potential of a walkable city. All around Japan, pedestrian zones started to pop up.
Starting out as “play roads” for kids in the back streets, car-free streets were soon implemented on a large scale during the 70s on main streets in some of Tokyo’s busiest districts, Ginza, Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Asakusa known as 歩行者天国 (Hokōsha Tengoku) or “Pedestrian Paradise”, as well as in other cities.
Tokyo Doesn’t Have Pedestrian Zones, Tokyo Has Pedestrian Paradises
Before we look at the results of closing off streets to cars in such a large city, let’s appreciate the name of this event. Sure, upon close inspection, you might find that it doesn’t look too different from a “pop-up car-free event” or “pedestrian zone” in other cities, but you have to admit, the word paradise has a very different feel to it.
If we can use fancy names to make generic suburbs more attractive, then why not elevate the pedestrian experience from the very basis the same way? Maybe in the process, we can even make some motorists jealous that instead of “going to a paradise”, they just “hit the road”.
How to Create a Paradise on Earth
Most of the paradises are held on the weekend and on holidays, creating more walkable space when it is most needed. But it doesn’t end there. Other car-free events take place in the evenings when many people leave their offices and students go home from school. Temporary restrictions to protect pedestrians will be in place, as well as during times when festivals are held.
The measures taken to create this car-free space are quite simple. Police will make announcements and control car traffic, busses will be detoured or given a special exemption, and of course, many signs are put up, informing and redirecting cars.
During the event, pedestrians are free to use the whole street, and some places organise street furniture. In general, it is forbidden to hold street performances without a permit so people can enjoy their walk in peace, but especially in Akihabara, cosplayers and music performances can be seen, creating a livelier atmosphere.
A True Paradise?
Alright, let’s see what happens when you prioritise walking in a mega city. On the first day of the event in 1970, the new pedestrian paradise in Tokyo attracted 785,000 people, almost two and a half times more than on a usual Sunday. Today, every weekend people get an additional 60,000m2 of additional walking space right in the heart of Tokyo, not counting smaller areas that are blocked off during pedestrian rush hour.
But not only in Tokyo was this project a success. In other cities like Sendai, Yokohama and Asahikawa, this concept was so successful, that the streets became permanently closed to traffic, allowing people the stroll down the streets freely to this day. The drastic reduction in carbon dioxide and noise from cars helped to create a liveable, environmentally friendly space and to spread this event to even more cities throughout Japan.
Since then, the event was both praised and criticised. Especially the noise from so many people gathering and using their newfound freedom for street concerts was cause for complaints from people living in some neighbourhoods. In other streets, the pedestrian paradise had to be discontinued due to traffic congestion caused by illegally parked cars and complaints thereof.
This goes to show that you will not be able to please everyone and that the rules for all participants need to be made very clear beforehand. All in all, the pedestrian paradises definitely were a success. Today, the three most prominent ones are located in Akihabara (550m), Shinjuku (720m) and Ginza (1000m), making it possible to walk down a seven-lane road lined with ten-story buildings – a truly unique experience.
The result is not surprising and can be seen in other projects and cities as well, from Time Square in New York to a (re-opened) canal in Aarhus. Every city has the potential to become walkable and liveable, and if the right framework is provided, people will come. It seems that what is true for cars is also true for people: the theory of induced demand is universal.
A Few Things to Take Away
- It doesn’t take much. Sure, the name is fancy, but at its core, the Pedestrian Paradises are easy to implement and adapt for every city.
- Get creative. Want to leave room for a bike lane or two? Organise some food stalls? Go all out on the street furniture, so people can get comfortable? Once you close a street for cars, it becomes apparent how much space we really have at our disposal. Let’s get creative and use that space to make walking as fun as possible.
- Don’t worry about traffic. Many cities tried to pedestrianise streets, be it for a day or forever. One thing we should have learned by now is that shops are not going to close down and traffic will not get worse. Of course, having a plan on how to divert traffic is wise, but the main focus should be on how to create a great pedestrian experience.
- Make it a weekly occurrence. A century ago, pedestrians got conditioned by the automobile industry that streets belong to the car alone and that it was in their own best interest to keep to the often narrow sidewalks. Reversing this process at least once a year is admirable, but making it a weekly occurrence gives back some freedom to the pedestrians and helps people realise just how great their city could be, driving (or better, walking) further change in the future.