Episode 3 - Walking: from jaywalking to Jan Gehl

Roger Boulter’s recent book draft (on www.boulter.co.nz) won a 2020 WSP Golden Foot Award. This post outlines some issues covered in the fourth of twelve chapters.

The full book text can be found on www.boulter.co.nz

Walking: from jaywalking to Jan Gehl

Unlike movement by car, bus or bike, walking is not primarily about safe and efficient movement using a route network. It’s about areas, not routes.

Classic urban design theorist Jan Gehl points out that in an environment safe for walking, people linger, chat, window-shop, and engage in all the activity which has always been the key to urban prosperity and lifestyle quality. This also deters crime, enhances personal safety and confers preventive health benefits.

Streets used to be like this – full of people wandering, lingering and interacting – but the advent of mass motor traffic led to different attitudes. People on foot were told to ‘take care’ and, with invention of the pejorative ‘jaywalking’ term, effectively made responsible for any dangers they faced from motor traffic.

With engineers focusing on safe and efficient motor traffic movement, it fell to architects and landscape architects to take up the case for a street as a ‘place’ (rather than just a movement corridor). Attempts have been made to bring these two approaches together in the ‘Link and Place’ template for categorising roadway space. This, however, is complex to apply, and in practice the old classic ‘road hierarchy’ thinking predominates.

A lack of understanding of what walking actually is may be a reason very little of the National Land Transport Fund’s ‘Walking and Cycling Activity Class’ money, since 2002, actually benefits people on foot. Funding has generally been to cycle route networks, with walking only benefiting in theory (not necessarily in practical reality) in the form of paths shared with cyclists.

A good illustration of the inter-professional tensions has been Wellington’s 2004 ‘City to Sea’ study. Jan Gehl was commissioned to look at how walking links could be improved between Wellington CBD and the Waterfront, and came up with specific proposals including reductions of roadway space. Most of the proposals were shelved, however, after a traffic modelling study which forecast road traffic congestion resulting from Gehl’s recommendations, but without considering other factors which might mean at least some of the congestion would fail to happen.

Since the 1990s, walking expertise has been brought together through networks such as the international ‘Walk 21’ conferences, with professional figures including Mayer Hillman, Todd Litman and Rodney Tolley particularly significant as intellectual leaders.

Walking has, however, suffered serious neglect and adverse effects from New Zealand policy approaches since 2015 focusing overwhelmingly on cycling. Some of the dismissive ‘jaywalking’ thinking has returned in some cycling advocacy rhetoric, particularly in relation to ‘shared paths’ and calls for footpath cycling legalisation.