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Going Back to College for Some Lessons on Livable Space

I went up to Berkeley on Tuesday to remind myself of how the other half lives, and as I rode through the UC campus, I was reminded of something that came up in the comments on one of my earlier posts: college campuses are among the few places where pedestrians, bicyclists and low-speed motorized vehicles mix freely in “shared space” in the United States, and they offer prime examples of how mixed-use, unsegregated roads and paths can be safely used by slow-moving cars, pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchairs, skateboards—whatever—as long as everyone is paying attention.

Indeed, the fact that all those modes of transportation are forced to coexist on the paths and roads of a campus such as Cal’s is what causes everyone to pay more attention, creating places where people can get where they are going at whatever pace they choose, with almost no conflict or inconvenience. It’s part of what makes a nice college campus feel so utopian compared to your average city street. In most cities, the majority of public space is devoted to moving or parked cars, with pedestrians segregated onto narrow strips of concrete on either side and cyclists uneasily mixed in with the cars (uneasily because many drivers perceive the roadway as “their” turf, and see slower-moving bicycles as obtrusive obstacles). On a college campus, the pedestrian tends to be the privileged one, while cyclists are expected to proceed with caution and automobiles are heavily restricted. Shuttle buses, utility trucks or other motorized vehicles that share the pathways have no choice but to travel at safe speeds and yield to pedestrians.

Another principle of the shared space philosophy that I was reminded of is the importance of making the space truly shared. Even a subtle division of the space by painting a strip on a path and telling walkers and bikers to stay on opposite sides of the line can have unintended consequences, especially if there is a limited amount of space, causing people to stray from “their” territory. The lovely path over the Brooklyn Bridge, for example, is divided into a bike lane and a walking lane, and back when I used to commute over the bridge by bike, the division of the space seemed to cause as many problems as it solved—inevitably, pedestrians would cross the dividing line and enter the bicycle side, either because they wanted to pass a group of slower pedestrians, or because they wanted to pose for a photo next to the opposite railing, or because they just hadn’t noticed that the path was divided into a ped lane and a bike lane. Cyclists would be irritated by the incursion into “their” space, so they would angrily swerve around the pedestrians at high speed, often having to cross into the pedestrian lane, which would cause other pedestrians to feel threatened by having a high-speed cyclists suddenly invading “their” space. The number of conflicts between cyclists and pedestrians may be reduced, but the unpleasantness of those conflicts when they do occur is greatly increased.

Given the fairly narrow path on the Brooklyn Bridge, the large number of pedestrians who walk across the bridge at certain times, and the desire of commuting cyclists to be able to ride at high speeds across the long bridge, that path may not actually be a great candidate for truly shared space, but it does demonstrate that dividing space so that each mode of transportation has its own territory doesn’t eliminate all conflicts—it might reduce their number, but when conflicts do arise, they may not be as smoothly negotiated as they are on, say, the paths of the UC Berkeley campus.

There is some effort to keep bicyclists off of some Berkeley campus areas, but in my opinion, it’s a good thing that those rules are so widely ignored—if bikes stayed on the paths that are marked as bicycle routes, then I think there would be worse conflicts between walkers and bikers at those places where they need to interact. As it is now, bicyclists tend to ride among pedestrians nearly everywhere on campus whether they are supposed to or not, and everyone seems to negotiate their way around each other just fine, because walkers and bikers alike are very alert to the possibility of encountering a faster or slower traveler at any time.

We see the same phenomenon with pedestrians and cars and bicycles on city streets. Keeping everyone separate reduces the likelihood of accidents to the extent that you can actually keep everyone separated, but when separation is impossible, such as when pedestrians need to cross a street, then you might actually be increasing the risk of an accident, because car drivers will be less prepared for the possibility that a pedestrian will be in the roadway.

This is one reason I’ve always felt safer as a pedestrian in cities like Boston and New York where jaywalking is so widespread. Sure, it’s dangerous for people to be darting across 5th Avenue in the middle of rush hour traffic, but on the other hand, drivers in Boston and New York, although they drive too fast, seem in general to be a lot more alert and aware of their surroundings than drivers in cities like Oakland, where a lot of people are shocked to discover that someone might actually want to walk across a street, even at an intersection. Many times here in Oakland I’ve been halfway across a crosswalk only to have a driver cruise blithely through a stop sign, clearly oblivious to my presence. That happened a lot less when I lived in cities where more people were walking around in the middle of the street. (Admittedly, my perception of increased safety in cities where jaywalking is widespread may just reflect the fact that it’s what I grew up with.)

These issues are also behind the debate among transportation wonks about whether bike lanes make streets safer or less safe for cyclists. The basic argument against bike lanes is that if cyclists are segregated into their own lanes, then car drivers will take that as confirmation that the rest of the road is their territory, and they will be less likely to drive with care when cyclists are nearby. That lack of care will make it more likely that they will hit a cyclist, even if the cyclist is in a separate lane off to the side. It’s better, the argument goes, for bicycles to occupy the same lanes as cars, forcing car drivers to pay attention, slow down, and pass cyclists with care and attention. (I’m a big fan of bike lanes myself, but I also love the “bike boulevards” in Berkeley, which give bikes priority on certain streets by very prominently marking them as bike routes and forcibly diverting car traffic away from those routes. I gather that the safety data on bike lanes is still inconclusive and in dispute.)

While “shared streets” have had some success in parts of Europe and other places, they are still pretty rare in the United States, and I don’t have any expectation that we’ll be turning over large areas of our cities to pedestrians and bicyclists anytime soon (San Francisco and New York are both taking baby steps in that direction, though). Given how much resistance there often is when a city wants to eliminate a car lane and install a bike lane instead, it’s almost unimaginable that most cities in the U.S. would turn significant parts of their urban cores over to pedestrians and cyclists, and force cars to either stay off the streets entirely or find their way slowly down the street along with walkers and cyclists and segway riders and whoever else.

Even if “woonerfs” and other shared spaces don’t become ubiquitous, however, there’s no reason that we can’t create more of them in certain well-chosen parts of our cities. Cars are great for traveling distances at speed, or hauling heavy stuff around, but there’s really no reason that every block of every city street needs to be designed primarily to maximize the convenience of the car driver. When I am on Telegraph Avenue between Broadway and Grand, or Lakeshore Avenue between Lake Park and Mandana, for instance, I personally see streets that are crying out for conversion into spaces where car traffic is either heavily limited or banned altogether. Both those stretches of roadway have a lot of restaurants, cafes and bars that might benefit from the ability to spread some additional seating out in front. Both streets have parallel streets nearby that are just as suitable, if not more so, for carrying the through traffic that now uses those blocks of Telegraph or Lakeshore.

We saw the potential of those streets as carfree spaces this summer, when people turned out in high numbers for the Lake Fest on Lakeshore (which I wrote about in August) and the Uptown Unveiled party on Telegraph. It’s not only street festivals that show people’s desire (often underappreciated, even by themselves) for more human-oriented public spaces, however. Think about all the places where Americans pay a small fortune to park their cars so that they can then get out of those cars and walk around in a carfree community space, whether it be Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, Faneuil Hall in Boston, Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica, or an indoor shopping mall. I’m not saying that shopping malls are the sort of public spaces that I want more of, but the fact that hanging out with friends at a mall is a common social activity in neighborhoods with impoverished public spaces suggests to me that most people have more of a craving for more safe, communal, carfree environments than they realize.

Consider, too, some of the places Americans choose to go for vacations. We go to walled Tuscan cities and hill towns not only because we like wine, olives and old buildings, but also because cities like Siena and Lucca are just nice places to be, with cars mostly exiled to the outer edges and the inner cores made up of bustling plazas and quiet streets where people can stroll without fear down the middle of narrow streets. We go to Disneyland not just for the rides and the orgy of consumerism, but because its “Main Street U.S.A” recreates the sort of livable, walkable community feeling that is missing from the neighborhoods most of us actually live.

How bizarre that so many people perceive efforts to make our cities livable again as somehow “anti-car”—that is to say, almost anti-American—while at the same time spending their disposable income and leisure time flying off to places where they can briefly experience the pleasure of being in a place where cars are either less dominant, or eliminated altogether. Efforts to ban cars from some city streets are often treated as radical lunacy, yet college brochures print photo after photo of students walking along bucolic campus paths, studying on green lawns, and hanging out with friends on the broad steps of majestic libraries. People pay tens of thousands of dollars a year not just for the education and the diploma, but also for the privilege of inhabiting such spaces with thousands of like-minded peers.

I actually like to drive even though I don’t own a car, and I’m renting a car tomorrow in order to get out of town for Thanksgiving. What I don’t like, however, is the fact that the automobile has taken over our public space to such an extent. I am routinely honked at or told to “get the hell off the road” while I am bicycling down the right edge of the right lane of city streets; many people in my neighborhood apparently see nothing wrong with parking their cars across the sidewalks and forcing pedestrians to walk into the street; the other day I watched a dozen cars fly by me on Park Boulevard as I waited at a crosswalk with my dog, and I was only able to cross the street when a considerate police officer set a good example by stopping his car and letting me across (I had no hope, of course, that he would actually ticket any of the drivers who had cruised past me without stopping to let me cross).

Those things don’t occur because most car drivers are especially selfish or inconsiderate—they occur because nearly everything in our culture, from the physical design of our cities to the lack of enforcement of traffic and parking laws to the fact that drivers are routinely let off the hook when their reckless behavior behind the wheel leads to the injury or death of innocents. All of these things add up to one clear message: cars are king, the “rights” of drivers are paramount, and anyone who wants to reduce the dominance of the automobile in American cities must be some kind of radical anti-car zealot.

Call me naive, but I don’t see any reason our urban neighborhoods shouldn’t more closely resemble the UC Berkeley campus, instead of a cityscape in which everything from the timing of traffic lights to the architecture of our homes is premised on the primacy of our automobiles. I don’t mean that our cities should be spread out and parklike, as the Berkeley campus is—in fact, I’d like to see most of our cities denser and more compact, so that there are enough people around to make pedestrian-oriented streets bustle and thrive. I wonder how many of the people who strongly resist any movement in that direction might discover, to their great surprise, that they would actually enjoy living in such a neighborhood themselves.