Pedestrianising or ‘pacifying’ streets increases the income for local councils and businesses, reduces pollution, protects health, and improves autonomy for children. Towns around the world are opting for more humane cities.
With this aim of humanising cities in terms of their design, towns around the world are investing in pedestrian areas, cycle lanes or removing infrastructure for cars (such as free parking). These are alternatives to the functionalist car-based development of the 20th century. So far, the results have been very positive: less pollution, greater autonomy for children, less noise, improved health and increased local income for councils and retailers.
“In the 20th century, we invented the territories of false remoteness, we transformed our dense cities, from the Mediterranean tradition and being outdoors, into territories with increasingly remote functions (living, working, leisure, industry),” explained Ana Montalbán, technical coordinator of the Ciudades que Caminan network (international association of towns and councils seeking to recover public space for citizens).
For citizens, this meant becoming pedestrians relegated to the sides of streets that they once inhabited. With the loss of streets, neighbourhood commerce declined. Nor did the increase in online shopping at the beginning of the 21st-century help, and ended up in many cases dealing it a death blow. But the main driver and symptom of this vicious circle was the car, “a machine that fits perfectly into this dynamic” of urban fracture.
The road pacification cycle
Frequently, the total or partial pedestrianisation of a street, as well as interventions that remove parking spaces for cars or replace conventional lanes with protected cycle lanes, spark protests from local business organisations and residents.
“Commerce has been the most firmly opposed,” said Montalbán. Generally, shops do not like change or friendly cities. Opposing pedestrianisation is “something very visceral” that changes as soon as the damage of the 20th century is reversed:
In Graz (Austria), a speed limit of 30 km/h was adopted in the town in the 1990s with strong opposition: less than half of residents supported it. Once the benefits were evident, support for the measurerose to 80%.
In Liubliana (Slovenia), a total of 12 hectares were closed to vehicle traffic in 2007, with only 40% of the population in favour of pedestrianisation. In 2015, 92% of residents were happy with quality of life in the city. In 2017, 97% of inhabitants “opposed the reopening of the centre to motor vehicles”.
These are not isolated cases. Paris, New York, Marrakesh, Florence, Vancouver, Melbourne, Buenos Aires, Madrid, London, Vienna, Dubrovnik, Berlin, Vitoria, Bogotá, Boston and Medina de Fez (UNESCO World Heritage Site and “shopping paradise”, according to National Geographic, and the best pedestrian area in the world) are some examples.
Cars don’t buy, people do
Donald C. Shoup, from the Department of Urban Planning at the University of California (UCLA), is the world’s leading expert on parking. In his book The High Cost of Free Parking (2011), he points out the cost for cities, citizens and shops of subsidising parking. It is simply unaffordable.
In fact, it has been shown that the policy of minimum parking requirements (minimum number of spaces per store) is counterproductive and ruins towns because no one pays their true cost. Strong Towns, the space specialised in urban resilience, has a huge library on the subject.
What can cities do? In Fayetteville (USA), they are densifying territory by eliminating this policy of minimums and building mixed use, residential and commercial buildings because they have understood that cars don’t buy, people do.
To avoid “the risk of urban sprawl where residential areas are spread out with low-density housing”, according to theSwiss Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the design of dense urban centres connected by bicycles is also encouraged. In 2018, a national referendum voted with a 73% majority to reinforce the bicycle in the country’s constitution, which is characterised by sustainable public transport, such as the railway network or SwitzerlandMobility, low-impact active routes (walkable and bikeable).
Higher volumes of sales
“Retailers overestimate car use and underestimate active transport,” say the authors ofa study in Berlin, where 91% of income came from pedestrians, cyclists and users of public transport. This is a normal (human) reaction to changes. However, it is unfounded. Why?
Perhaps because “people who walk are very invisible”, said Ana Montalbán. In Spain, only 35% of people have a class B driving licence, according to statistics from the driver census of the Directorate General of Traffic and population data from the National Institute of Statistics.
Another study analysed the impact on local commerce of the total or partial pedestrianisation of streets in 14 Spanish cities. “The results show that shops located in pedestrian areas tend to register higher volumes of sales than those located in non-pedestrian areas.”
In 2016, the city of Toronto (Canada) removed 136 on-street parking spaces in order to install a bike lane on Bloor Street, a commercial corridor. “Monthly customer spending and the number of customers served by retailers increased,” the study researchers reported.
In 2021, the UK Department for Transport published its guidebook Decarbonising Transport, A Better, Greener Britain and, although this is still a2020 estimate, it is projected that increasing walkability and bikeability would increase the influx of potential customers by 40%.
Wherever you look, pedestrianisation results in local economic benefits, not to mention others related to health or quality of life. It is an investment in citizens.