Thursday, January 21, 2016

Stop What?

Hey everyone,

There is a very popular YouTube channel from Russia called Stop a Douchebag where pedestrians face off with motorists who are driving on the sidewalk. Apparently it is a real problem in Russia and the police don't care very much! In this blog I don't want to comment on their methods or whether it is right or wrong to do what they do; rather I want to talk about how urban design directly shapes how people live and how they interact with each other.

So if you watch some of the content on that channel I ask you to look past the fighting and the mayhem and ask yourself why this happens and how it could be changed. The basic theory is that there are cues in the built environment that communicate to us what is acceptable behaviour and what isn't. More broadly this relates to Broken Window Theory or CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design).

I don't pass moral judgement on either side in these videos. I argue that culturally the pedestrians are the same as the drivers and that the reason there is a conflict is because of their different perspectives. Consider the built environment from the perspective of the driver and then from the perspective of the pedestrian.

The driver is frustrated by traffic congestion and sees a clear path around the cars in front of her. Since there are ineffective barriers, the road is very permeable with the sidewalk, making it feel like an extra shortcut lane. The drivers aren't bad people, they are just behaving in a way that should be ok based on the way the road is designed; all things considered the law seems arbitrary. In fact some of the sidewalks that are depicted in the videos are just asking to be driven on! They mercilessly taunt drivers until some people give in and roar up on the sidewalk and charge at the weary pedestrians.

So what about the pedestrians perspective? Recently I made a 10 part video series about Walking In Red Deer and I learned a lot about the pedestrian's perspective that I didn't understand before. For example, cars are REALLY loud and scary and when the sidewalk is close to a busy road where drivers can drive faster than 50km/hr it is very unsettling! Also pedestrians want to take the most efficient route as possible, often roads that are designed only for cars have sidewalks that wander off in random directions and human nature is to then run across the road. So pedestrians are open to the elements, boxed in by the shape of the sidewalk and accosted by cars in every direction. 

Bogota, Colombia also had the same problem that many of these Russian cities seem to have and it is a good example of how to make things better. The mayor at the time, Enrique PeƱalosa sought to crack down on illegal driving and parking on sidewalks and through many innovative street improvements and extensive education has brought the situation under control. So I would advise the Russians to give Enrique a call, maybe he can help. But on the other hand I think they have a somewhat effective, Made-In-Russia solution! (LOL)

So how does this tie back to the Stop a Douchbag videos? Well those videos represent an extreme result of designing a city for cars first and people a distant second. As the city sprawls more and more people are forced by design to commute longer and longer distances. Mobility options for people are limited and frustration is part of the designed experience. I think that we all share the common goal to prevent mayhem in our streets and I advocate that we should be proactive and design complete streets that connect people, rather than repel them or entice them into conflict.

How does this relate to Red Deer? Well, we are in a very unique situation. We haven't yet grown to scale to realize the anxieties of urban sprawl but we are racing in that direction, full tilt! In the future our city will be building a major arterial road, 20th Ave. Which will connect The Delburn Road (19th St) to Hwy 11A. The decision will be made to either make it a super expensive, 6 lane free-way like road with high capacity off ramps that circle over and under each other or to build a more human scale road like 30th Ave with 4 lanes, efficiently designed pedestrian trails and intersections which meaningfully connect communities.

Herein lies the problem which flies directly in the face of "common sense". Wider straighter roads DO NOT translate into safer roads and they certainly do not ease traffic congestion elsewhere in the city. In fact they create more traffic. This is a well demonstrated fact backed by a lot of evidence. So convincing people that more focused roads like the one I advocate for are safer, more cost effective and better for the city is an up hill battle. But thankfully the paradigms are changing and there are many visionary leaders who see this and are passionately advocating for a better future for our city.

In the future we will know we got it right if driving, walking, biking and public transit are all safe, efficient and pleasant! 

We will know we got it right if the design of our city brings people together rather than repels them! 

We will know we got it right if the design of our city makes us happy, healthy and well connected!

What do you think? Is this the sort of city that you would love to live in? Is this is the sort of city that Red Deer could be?

I look forward to hearing your feedback. Please feel free to engage with me on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter.


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