Pedestrian Sprawl Alert: Streets Gone Wild

Ian Sacs's picture

Once upon a time public rights-of-way were simpler; they made sense.  The mobile laws of society were black and white.  Streets were for cars and sidewalks were for, well, walking on the side of the street.  You know, out of the way?  At some point recently though things have started to blur, and it's starting to get just a little bit out of control.  It's hard to put one's finger on it, but lately there's been this funny notion that the street itself, long the gift to man-and-machine, is supposed to be shared with people who just can't seem to keep themselves on their side of the curb.  Woe is me, in some instances there isn't even a curb anymore!  What's worse, it seems apparent that our public officials, the very people we elect to represent us and deliver us from the evils of anarchy, are complicit in the scheme to let shoemongers expand out from the periphery and conquer the precious carriageway from both flanks!  I can only call this phenomenon, where the powers that be openly and willingly promote the trend of foot traffic putting the squeeze on our American right to drive where we need to, Pedestrian Sprawl.

I first caught sight of Pedestrian Sprawl in a city that is close to my heart: Helsinki.  The Finnish capital is bustling with the industrious hum of cars, trucks, buses, trams, bikes, and yes, pedestrians.  But if you think you can happily zip around in a sweet euro-sports car, caveat auriga!  There, the sidewalks are already absurdly wide, with even wider berths given for bikers who somehow also managed to nip off a few meters from the weary drivers.  Bus lanes also contribute to preventing the faithful autophile from enjoying the city from various lines-of-sight.  All this is somehow forgivable however because, after all, the car was invented in America anyway so who could expect the Finns to cherish this basic necessity as much as we do?  But then one day, innocently turning a corner after careful negotiation past tram and crosswalk, the laws of transport physics appeared before me, turned on their head, in vivid chaotic audacity.  Somehow when the traffic engineers were away diligently planning another critical ring road, pedestrian sprawl had struck this quaint historic cobblestone street...big time!  A kahvila (cafe) had burst out from the building line and expanded right into the street like some heinous, haute société hernia.  The mini-terrace was elevated about a foot from the ground, totally eliminating the potential for even an exciting espionage film car chase scene where patrons shriek and chairs and tables scatter.  I later learned that Helsinki even dares to go further with a long list of streets that are supposed to be equally shared between cars and pedestrians called woonerfs, which loosely means "residential yard" in Dutch.  Apparently The Netherlands is riddled with these areas;  if you love your right to drive, stay away!


If I had known at the time this anti-auto insanity would insidiously creep into our cities, I'd had immediately submitted an op-ed to National Review to rally the troops.  Unfortunately, my imagination couldn't fathom the distorted reality that would slowly ooze over America's most prized driving domains.  Before anyone could rest their wrists against the wheel to dial their local representatives, Pedestrian Sprawl struck America at its heart!  And so it carries on at a relentless pace.  It was, once, a snap to cruise your Hummer through the core of Manhattan's flashy Meat Packing District; four lanes across with room to spare in front of the trendiest clubs to let the crowds see you roll up.  But those voracious crowds expanded beyond the ample space given to them and swelled into the streets to the point where the mind boggling result was to compress the street into two driving lanes and leave the rest to wallow in the bane of Pedestrian Sprawl.  From the looks of things, such sieges on the steering-wheel set are not subsiding.  For those of us who cherish the freedom of barreling down side streets, scoring a parking space right up front, or spreading the love with 400 watts of rolled-down-window beat bliss during a main street creep, the glory days of the American dream are as gone as the regular heart-racing roar of a catalytic converter-free 426 Hemi.  Alas!


Ian Sacs, P.E. is a worldwide transportation solutions consultant based in Finland.



Similar thing in Amsterdam + how about the US?


Always enjoy your posts.

Just got back from Amsterdam, and I took note of much of what you're describing in Helsinki. I had heard a lot about bike facilities in Amsterdam that went far beyond simple painted bike lanes, and I wasn't disappointed. But what was striking and unexpected to me was how seemingly chaotic things were, and how untroubled people seemed to be by the "sprawl" (as you put it) of pedestrians across bike lanes, of bikes onto sidewalks, and sometimes (occasionally) a stray car parked on a sidewalk. In a way, things couldn't have functioned any other way, because the streets were being called upon to move thick swarms of bikes, crowds of people on foot, as well as the occasional car and tram vehicle. It seemed as though people shrugged off the seeming anarchy and just accepted a sort of negotiation process with all sorts of different transportation modes as a normal part of moving through the city on a daily basis.

A question for you as a transportation planning pro: can our American system, with concerns about liability and safety and strict functional separation built into its very DNA, ever get to a place like what you're describing? Or do we have to find our own way to make streets multimodal, with more separation and more rules? Even a lot of our progressive transportation advocates here seem to want things to be very strictly separated (for instance, the SF ped rights community is adamant about enforcement to keep bikes off of sidewalks).

Jake Wegmann

Ian Sacs's picture

peds in my way, cars in my bike lane, bikes on my sidewalk

hey jake! it's funny you mention the way amsterdamers shrug off the co-mingling of modes on their streets because in my hometown, hoboken, where we are just getting bike lanes put in, there has been a lot of chatter on the local blogs about where people are now going to double park! hoboken is a bit infamous for this habit (old-timers describe hoboken as "restaurants, bars, and double-parked cars"), and as an occasional driver i can attest that it is sometimes a major convenience, but it also illegal and therein lies the rub. my feeling, in theory, about those blog commenters' concerns is exactly what you were observing in amsterdam, that the street is a public facility and that all users should expect to share the space with others. so if a car is double parked in the bike lane, then carefully shift into the traveled way when there is space and share that lane for a few moments until you can get back. if bikes are in the "car lane", then give them a few seconds to shift over or politely tap on your horn to remind them there are others using the road. many will laugh at this, but just as sustainability is a horizon, something we strive for but never quite attain, shared streets is also something that we can work towards and gradually achieve in greater measure, despite it being a long way from here.

of course, condoning illegal activities is not a good way to exercise one's pe license, so that takes us to your second topic about how our transportation system will handle the idea of sharing in a nation where functional seperation is "built into its very dna". to that i suspect there is strong rationale at the moment because the idea of various modes on the street is young and foreign to many american drivers. i find in hoboken that drivers are much more aware of pedestrians on the street, but you can always spot the out-of-towner careening along with a cell phone (probably asking where to park!) clueless about crosswalks teeming with commuters walking home from work until they slam on the brakes the first time. for now, clearer seperation is probably best. as americans learn to accept and live with a mix of modes on city streets, i suspect the laws and regulations will adjust accordingly, but this will be an arduously slow process that requires all of our energy and attention. we don't fully understand how to operate truly shared facilities in our legal framework of "always the others' fault", and that will come with time and, a bit of trial and error.

so i guess the short-term answer is that functional seperation is the current norm, and small deviations from this (sharrows, raised intersections, pedestrian plazas) are our incremental steps towards urban environments where, as jane jacobs described so vividly, kids can once again freely play in the streets and drivers expect such behavior.

Similar Thing in SF

There is a proposal for a similar thing in San Francisco: see and note the cafe sprawling into the ROW of automobiles.

I think it could only work in a location like this, which is already so heavily used by pedestrians that cars are bound to be cautious.

Charles Siegel

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