People Walking Downtown: Forgotten or Getting Better Everyday?

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Virtually every person going downtown by auto, bike, bus, or train ultimately becomes a person on foot. Foot for foot (pardon the pun) sidewalks can allow one and a half to three time as many people (1,100 to 2,000 people per hour) to move compared to a lane for cars. Plus, there is no parking required for pedestrians, and getting around downtown on foot can be as fast as other modes of transportation.

These days there is a lot of science behind good pedestrian facilities, and the company Legion is one group doing sophisticated modeling of pedestrian behavior. “At the heart of the company’s algorithms is the idea that a ‘person, when they walk, is seeking to minimize their dissatisfaction.’,” notes a Slate article on walking in America. “On foot, as with life itself! ‘The same way you can plot density on a map,’ Legion Vice President Dan Plottner says, ‘you can plot frustration.’ This simple statement—minimizing dissatisfaction—explains a lot. It is why people take the escalator (and disdain elevated walkways or subterranean tunnels), it is why pedestrians will begin to rampantly jaywalk if you make them wait too long, it is why they trample “desire lines” on aloofly chained-off college quadrangles. As a British engineer once said, ‘pedestrians are natural Pythagoreans’—they will always seek the shortest path.'”

Americans walk less than people in any other country, and some argue we need to learn to walk again. Others take a decidedly more positive approach, seeking to maximize the experience of walking, which it turns out isn’t just like engineering a road for automobiles on a smaller scale. In Life Between the Buildings the narrator says, ”to invite people we should respect the small but important elements to make life in cities flourish – comfort, details are present, uses overlap, senses are stimulated, indoor meets outdoor, life unfolds.”

Gehl, author of Life Between the Buildings, comments on the rapid expansion of cities, particularly over the last 50 years, where there was little to no concern for the inhabitants. He talks about the moment when people looked back and realized they had forgotten about the people. Listen to Gehl discuss how cities are making improvements here.Screen shot 2016-02-29 at 1.18.58 PM

This on-going conversation about walking in a city is what came to mind as the city was installing tile-surfaced obelisks on sidewalks around downtown Austin. As is the function of art, they have begun a conversation started between the creators and the viewer. So now we invite our readers into the discussion: how does Austin stack up? We have a rich tradition of street art. Are we continuing that? Are we doing more? Are we (as Gehl suggests) making our city a little better each day for the people (particularly people walking) who live and work here?

Cartoon by Ian Lockwood

2 Responses to People Walking Downtown: Forgotten or Getting Better Everyday?

  1. I work for the City of Austin’s Cultural Arts Division and it was a nice surprise to see one of our public artworks mentioned in your article! The artwork you referenced is “Pedestrian Geometries” by Erin Curtis and project partner Nicole Blair. When construction on 3rd Street finishes there will be 25 sculptures of different shapes, colors, and patterns. The sculptures are actually made of Elgin Butler brick (not tile!), glazed and cut to form the unique patterns, and were fabricated with the assistance of CW Oates Masonry. The sculptures are designed to converse with the total environment of the streetscape – benches, trees, bike racks, etc. – acting as landmarks and sidewalk “companions” for pedestrians. Glad that they could also spark conversation about walkability and livability in Austin!