In downtown Salt Lake City, just a few blocks from my home, construction has closed a sidewalk. That’s not particularly noteworthy, except that A) it’s one of downtown’s wider — and therefore better — sidewalks, B) it’s on one of the most pedestrian friendly streets, and C) all the space reserved for cars remains open.
Here’s what it looks like:
In the picture above, the construction area is marked with yellow tape and signs. Significantly, this street has a row of diagonal parking along with a single-but-very-wide lane for cars. All of that space remains unobstructed.
It’s also worth pointing out that the diagonal parking isn’t even used all that much; why was this second car space left open at the expense of pedestrian space?
In the grand scheme, this particular situation isn’t that important.
But it does seem to capture the way we often don’t even think twice about marginalizing pedestrian infrastructure, while doing the same to car space is verboten. Imagine, for example, if the construction crew erected a temporary sidewalk in the street, blocking it to cars but leaving the space open for people. What if the city required any construction to maintain a clear pedestrian path, no matter what?
That’s entirely doable — and I’d argue it’s a better solution than blocking pedestrians — but as the picture shows, it doesn’t always happen. There would probably be an uproar if it did. My point is that cities too often automatically marginalize pedestrian space for an array of reasons, and we need to reconsider that strategy.
One of the more important aspects of “urbanism,” at least as I see it, is fairness for different modes of transportation. In this case, that means trying to rethink the way we treat foot traffic so that it’s weighed more equally against vehicle traffic. That makes economic sense, both because pedestrian infrastructure is generally cheaper and because walkable places are often financially stronger.
In other words, we shouldn’t give preferential treatment to cars just because traditionally that’s what we’ve done. Instead of asking, “how can we maintain traffic flows?” we should be asking, “how can we make this space better and more vibrant for users of all kinds?”