First things first – thank you to those who checked in with health advice and concern. I’ve got a plan for diet and exercise and after a year on a waiting list, I’ve got an appointment to see a new doctor. I’ve heard great things about his practice, and I’m very excited about his approach to health (I feel old exhibit #427: I just wrote that I was excited about a seeing a doctor). Obviously, I have not yet seen him, but after hearing from some of my friends who are clients, and reading about the practice, I am totally on board with the philosophy. As I understand it, the approach to health is collaborative between to the doctor and patient, it puts physical concerns into the larger life matrix of social, emotional and spiritual concerns, and approaches treatment from the standpoint of treating cause instead of symptom (which is the opposite of how my prescription-happy former Doc approached things). Last week, I noted that maintaining health and building the city are both hard work. This week I’ll stick with that concept, but illustrate it with a detail.
One of the things I have found in my dozen years in this profession is that there are two ideas that always come out of a public process (and most stakeholder meetings). The first is to close a street and turn it into a pedestrian mall. The second is to build pedestrian overpasses or footbridges. Both of those are almost always a bad idea. Earlier last week, I sat in on a meeting for an upcoming project, and someone tossed up the pedestrian bridge idea. It was not my meeting, and I think we were trying to wrap things up, so I held my tongue. As I left the building I reexamined why footbridges are such a bad idea. There are some straightforward, concrete answers, but it struck me that there is also a very basic concept that no one ever talks about.
Pedestrian bridges are detrimental to urban environments for a number of reasons- each of which is the direct result of the facility functioning as it should. The job of the footbridge is to remove the pedestrian from the street. The sole benefit from this move is that pedestrian and auto conflicts are reduced (and that is a worthy goal, don’t get me wrong). By taking people off the street, however, we have taken people off the street. The street is the heart of the public realm- our shared community space. We want pedestrians on the street- strolling, sitting, shopping, browsing, running, and dining. This is makes business viable, attracts more activity, and fulfills the promise that is the city.
As I mentioned last week, our society now treats symptoms. We rarely look for the root cause of our problems. This is the case with ped bridges. The fundamental question is this: “What is the problem?” Is our problem motorists behaving in a way that is potentially dangerous, or is it people having the audacity to walk across a street? Put in those terms, the answer is crystal clear. Our problem is not people walking (in fact that is a good thing), our problem is that we developed a transportation system that exists in a vacuum instead of being integrated into the city. Cars are important (I love mine and I drive all the time), mobility is important, access is important- however, these are facilitative actions. The reason we drive is to get from one place to another to engage in some activity. Those activities are the reasons that roads and cars exist to begin with. However, our current system favors the act of moving more than what we do once we’ve arrived. So rather than trying to cure the “ill” of people of walking on a street, why aren’t we address the other side of the equation?
In the great movie Office Space, Michael Bolton (one of the protagonists) decried the fact that his name had been hijacked by a “no talent ass-clown” (the singer Michael Bolton). When asked why he didn’t change his name, he replied “Why should I change, he’s the one who sucks.” So it is with the pedestrian bridge in an urban area. Why should the pedestrian have to get on a bridge, it’s the traffic behavior that is the problem.
*As I was writing this week, Outside the Lines did a segment about Bo Bike’s Bama. This is Bo Jackson’s effort to raise $1 million for the tornado victims by bicycling across my great home state. Halfway through the piece I was reduced to tears (I am a crier of Vermeilian proportions). I love Bo Jackson (although this has not always been the case), he is a credit to professional athletes and an Alabamian of the highest order. Please consider going to BoBikesBama.Com and making a donation.