Two Words Would Make Our Cities More Livable: Pedestrians First

Any plan to make cities better start with the single step we all take when we leave home.

Two Words Would Make Our Cities More Livable: Pedestrians First
[Photo: ablokhin/iStock]

What’s the single most important factor in a livable city? Pedestrians. After all, even if we commute to work in a BMW, we start and finish our journey as pedestrians. “Every single trip begins with walking,” says Gil Penalosa, founder of the livable cities advocacy group 8 80 Cities. That’s why any plan to make cities better start with the single step we all take when we leave home.


To improve our cities, Penalosa says, we need to pay attention to four “pillars”– walkability, bikeability, public spaces, and public transportation. Get the right balance, and you end up with somewhere like Copenhagen, where commuter parking lots have become public squares, ringed with businesses and cafes, and cyclists feel so safe that it’s common to see “a woman biking to a business meeting dressed exactly as if she were driving,” says Penalosa in an article published by the Knight Foundation.

The first step is to slow down the cars, which makes the roads safer and walking more attractive. At 20mph, a collision will almost certainly not kill you, whereas at 40mph you have an 85% chance of dying. Walking can also be encouraged by making streets pleasant and interesting to walk on, making sure there is always a park nearby, for example, or eliminating dirty, noisy roads that turn walking into an unpleasant chore instead.

Infrastructure can also make cities more pedestrian-friendly. The ideal would be car-free zones, but where we must mix cars and pedestrians, we can tip to odds in favor of those on foot. We can add medians to roads, islands in the center so you only have to cross half a road at a time. We can add a short (6-7 second) delay to pedestrian-crossing lights so that cars are held back from turning until the pedestrians are already in the road, and clearly visible. “It’s possible to prioritize pedestrians and still allow cars, but prioritizing cars rarely works well for pedestrians,” says the report.

Bike-ability is all about focusing on people who don’t ride. If someone already braves the traffic of the average town or city, they don’t need further convincing. But to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, you need to make them feel safe. This is done with physically separated bike lanes and by building lanes that actually go somewhere. You don’t just squeeze them in where they’ll cause the least inconvenience to cars–you have to make bike lanes so ubiquitous and friendly that cycling is the easiest and best way to get around.

[Photo: Jon Tyson via Unsplash]

The third pillar, public spaces, seems obvious, but the Knight Foundation report has some interesting points on that, too. For instance, different-sized parks have different uses. “Small ones, where neighbors can meet, larger ones, for sports; and outdoor nature areas for ‘contemplative’ activities such as canoeing.” Kids’ play parks should also be designed to have space for adults to sit and watch, “so neighbors will stay around and get to know each other.” And you don’t need to raze a few blocks and plant a forest in order to get a good public space. Parking lots can be repurposed, and in some cases, derelict land can be reclaimed by the local community.


Finally, we come to public transport. Americans spend one out of every $4 on mobility, which means the private car. “If mobility was based on public transit,” says Penalosa, “it would be maybe only $4 out of every $100.” But building it isn’t enough. Public transport should be available all over the city, not just in the center. That means you don’t have to switch to a car to visit IKEA, nor do you suffer if you are poor and live in a bad neighborhood. The report also says that public transport should be attractive. San Francisco’s cable cars are a great example of this, and many European cities still use ancient trams, which are well-maintained and work perfectly, but also have a kind of retro vibe.

As Penalosa points out in his video, none of these objectives are hard or expensive. Compared to building new road infrastructure, these plans are cheap. The problem, then, is political will. It might seem impossible to beat the car lobby, and frustrating to argue with neighborhood associations who object to replacing a single parking space with bike racks because it’s an eyesore, but it can be done. After all, says founding partner and CEO of Copenhagen-based Gehl Architects in the report, “even Copenhagen had to change culturally to be as livable as it is now.”

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About the author

Previously found writing at, Cult of Mac and Straight No filter.