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Marcus Baumgart


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Pedestrians and Democracy

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I’ve been thinking a lot about democracy lately (and its not because of debates between Republican presidential candidates). It’s a different take on democracy, and it’s courtesy of Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia. He used the word liberally in his remarks to the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Pedestrian Safety on August 17th. While he was in town that day to help MPC unveil its Bus Rapid Transit study and recommendations for a 10-route network, we couldn’t pass up the chance to arrange for him to address Alderman Margaret Laurino’s (39th Ward) committee. Although ‘address’ may be too passive a word – it’s more accurate to say that he regaled, cajoled, preached, implored - whichever word you choose, the man is passionate about the importance of democratic transportation decision-making to support the many ways people get around. A sampling of his thoughts:

“Quality sidewalks and protected bicycle paths are not cute architectural features; they are a right, unless we believe that only those with access to a car have the right to safe individual mobility.”

“A protected bicycle way is a symbol of democracy. It shows that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one in a $30,000 car.”

“Parking is not a constitutional right.”

As mayor, Peñalosa added miles of bicycle and pedestrian highways, replaced parking spaces with pedestrian sidewalks, and spearheaded a voter-approved referendum that established the first Thursday of every February as a city-wide car-free day. His efforts not only made Bogota more pedestrian-friendly, but as he put it, more democratic.

Bogotá is not the only city to take a stand for pedestrians and cyclists. Shanghai and Paris also converted roads into pedestrian-only destinations. In 2000, Shanghai transformed a one-mile stretch of Nanjing Road, a declining retail destination, into a pedestrian thoroughfare by renovating more than 40 buildings, landscaping and improving the streetscape. As a result of these transformations, Nanjing Road is now the busiest commercial district in Shanghai, a major tourist destination, and home to more than 600 businesses. 

Similarly, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoë and his administration converted two miles of a busy expressway along the Seine River into a pedestrian beach for two months in 2002. To bring this vision to life, Paris trucked in sand and palm trees, constructed outdoor cafes, and enlisted street artists and musicians to attract people to the beach. It was a major success; the beach attracted 600,000 visitors its first day and 2 million its first month, and has since become a yearly event.

The success of these pedestrian streets proves that vibrant public spaces, not roadways, are integral in attracting a critical mass of people who want to be outside. Making a city more democratic, though,  does not have to involve making sweeping changes to the streetscape on the scale of Shanghai and Paris. Some changes can be quite small but still profoundly influential. Transport for London, for example, reasoned in 2008 that Londoners in general like walking, but do not often choose to do so because they would rather take public transportation in areas they are not familiar with. To acquaint pedestrians with how to get around on foot, Transport for London piloted the Legible London program, a series of sign posts that plot out nearby landmarks and give pedestrians an idea of how long it will take to get to certain destinations. The prototype for the program resulted in some gains: walking journeys increased 16 percent in the Bond Street area, and the program has since expanded. Some 87 percent of surveyed Legible London guinea pigs responded that they would like to see the program expand across the city - further proof that, as I’ve written on this blog previously, people want to walk.

Democracy in transportation is catching on stateside as well. The Project for Public Spaces, for example, co-founded a New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign in 2005 and the campaign's vision for community-based public plazas began to be implemented by the New York City Department of Transportation in 2007. In 2008 alone, 49 acres of street and parking spots were converted to bike lanes, pedestrian areas and public plazas.

What about Chicago? New leaders in the Mayor’s Office, CTA and CDOT, as well as on aldermanic committees are already making decisions that value the $30 biker just as much as the $30,000 car driver. For example, the final public meeting of CDOT’s Pedestrian Plan on August 24th drew more than 100 people who devoted their lunch hour to a “walking workshop” in which we evaluated nine different loop intersections for pedestrian safety and desirability. Another example is the July unveiling of the City’s first protected bike lane on Kinzie, the first in Mayor Emanuel’s pledge to install 25 miles of protected bike lanes each year.

That’s the kind of democracy I’ve been thinking about. Now once that protected bike lane on Jackson is in, I’ll be exercising my civic duty right on in to work.

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