Walk 21 conference Barcelona 2008 report

Report to Living Streets Aotearoa on Walk 21 conference Barcelona, 7-10 October 2008

Walk 21 conference attracted 500 attendees from 34 countries predominantly from Europe and North America. Those attending included government officials and elected members, ngo representatives, academics, professionals and walking advocates including 5 delegates from New Zealand.

On balance, the recent LSA conference in Auckland compared very creditably with the international conference in content, quality of presentations and venue.  However, it is of value for LSA to be represented at Walk 21 both to learn and to contribute, assess how we are doing and to build international links.

The next Walk 21 conference will be held in New York in October 2009.

Barcelona’s old city heart with its network of streets and alleys is eminently pedestrian-friendly. We walked to conference sessions through streets where pedestrians have right-of-way and the cars nosed their way slowly and cautiously through.  In addition, the  Barcelona waterfront provides many kilometres of walking and biking for the city’s millions.  But Barcelona shares with most cities the challenges of traffic clogged suburbs. In a bold move, the city recently reclaimed two central lanes of a stretch of arterial road for green space. Barcelona has experienced a steep increase in cycling numbers in the last three years with some conflict with other road users as a result. Children under 12 are allowed to bike slowly on the footpath. It would seem that education re rights and responsibilities needs to complement regulations.    Catalonia is vigorously trying to increase walking and pedestrian safety through a range of measures. Spain has the highest road crash statistics of any OECD country and is planning to reduce the speed limit to save fuel and improve safety.

The conference focused on the need to move from car-dominated planning which concentrates on moving vehicles quickly and freely to better provision for pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users. Balancing streets and roads for all users is allied with increasing awareness that continued urban sprawl is neither prudent nor sustainable.

The Mayor of Copenhagen made a concise and compelling commitment to encouraging walking in part so as to reduce the problem of cycling congestion. Copenhagen has a robust “pedestrian account” and “cycling account” monitoring system.

Dr William Bird from Intelligent Health UK, told us that health benefits of walking include warding off alzheimers, improving cognitive function, reducing diabetes, depression, heart disease etc.. Given his data, Vote Health should certainly contribute to active transport.

NZTA Senior Engineer walking and cycling, Tim Hughes, reminded us that death and injury rise steeply when speeds increase beyond 30kph.  “The single most beneficial thing we can do for safety and comfort is to reduce speed”  European school zone speeds are typically 30kph.

Several sessions discussed the range of restricted speed zone areas with accompanying street treatment: variously home zones, pedestrian only, or pedestrian priority zones or shared use zones. They are often without kerbs so that the boundaries between pedestrians and cars are blurred and include surface treatments such as raised coloured crossings and a range of “mental speed bumps” that encourage caution as the smart way to tame traffic.   A number of European cities have instituted such areas.  Chambery in France did so and experienced a 70% reduction in accidents between 1993-2003 (cf to 40% nationally). Lisburn in Northern Ireland is designing a central square in a new town area which embodies the shared use concepts i.e. without kerbs and with different pavement treatments and “navigation nodes” or bollards to guide traffic.  

Post conference I stayed in a  “home zone” in Basel with a 20kph speed limit, a very pleasant pedestrian environment which seemed to be well accepted and complied with.  A Swiss official told me that local residents may request a “home zone” and he is not aware of any instances where they have asked for a home zone to be removed, once instituted.  In this affluent city, only 45% own cars owing to the ease of using public transport and the compact nature of the city.

I appreciated the counting down pedestrian crossing signals which enable pedestrians to judge remaining time to cross.

Typically, European apartment buildings confine cars (and bikes) to the rear of the building with a liberal sprinkling of street level businesses providing active frontages.  As result the pedestrian experience is enhanced.

Sandy James from the City of Vancouver provided attractive examples of the city’s Greenways projects: neighbourhood-led and city-supported linking shared pathways incorporating gardens and, often, art.   

The session on counting pedestrians focused on presentations from suppliers of pedestrian counting equipment.

    * Chambers Electronics (UK) radio beam technology with wireless transmission.
    * Springboard (UK) camera sends data to computer.  Leased equipment plus internet charge.
    * Eco counter (France) embedded counters sends data to computer -  good for remote locations.
    * LASE (Germany) laser technology

Pedestrian audit walkshop:  I participated in a pedestrian audit of a section of Barcelona’s Las Ramblas area which was an introduction to the somewhat detailed PERS system (UK) and finished with the engineers in the group debating solutions to pedestrians ignoring a crossing in favour of an informal short cut.

A number of speakers covered examples where humour, surprise and intrigue increase safety e.g. letters stencilled outside school in Nantes, France.

An Italian presenter reflected on the restrictions we now place on children compared to previous generations and the limitation on their independence and development of traffic skills that this entails. His organisation advocates for the right of children to walk to school alone - something my generation would have taken for granted. Italian children have also proved effective in noting driver’s transgressions and thereby improving driver behaviour.

A workshop on Placemaking and Walkability – bringing people together - presented by New York based Projects for Public Places staff emphasised the importance of community involvement with the community as experts and of developing destinations for walking. A combination of activities contributes to successful public places.  “What attracts people, is other people” who have reasons to go to a place on a regular basis.

Examples across the US, showed public space reclaimed and improved. Some examples started with small changes e.g. a bus shelter and planting in suburban Los Angeles encouraged locals to develop a vacant lot.  After being closed for ten years owing to violence and drug-dealing, Bryant Park in New York was successfully managed with active frontages, flexible seating for events etc.  Detroit, home of the automobile, re-built a central square by reclaiming traffic lanes. Government buildings may be located above street level businesses rather than presenting blank facades.

Public art was seen as providing destinations for walkers but is best part of a rich mix of experience rather than a “thin experience”  when a piece of public art is plonked in a barren area.  San Francisco research recommends a point of interest every seven minutes along a walking route and also showed that the impact of public art reduces after eighteen months.

Daphne Bell


www.walk21.org (Walk 21)

www.pedestrians-int.org (International Federation Pedestrians)



www.onlyinindia.org (graphic videos of Indian traffic)

www.transportenvironment.org (European Federation Transport & Environment)



www.eltis.org European urban transport & mobility

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