After two and a half years of staying within Canada and visiting only local destinations, I recently embarked on my first international trip, spending just over two weeks in Italy and the UK. While the trip was for personal holiday, there’s no “off” switch for my urban planning brain, and so I was quick with my phone to capture lots of pictures and observations.
Pedestrianized town centres are a wonderful thing. In the last couple of week’s I’ve experienced these in large cities (Glasgow, 1.8M, Leeds, 800k), a midsized city (Verona, 250k) and a small town (Mantova, 50k). All were thriving, with bustling shopping streets and lively patios, with many people living in and near the centres. While locally pedestrianized areas have been criticized as catering to tourists at the expense of “commerce”, a key success factor seems to be that they all serve locals just as well as tourists. In Mantova, locals were easy to spot as they would arrive by bicycle with shopping bags attached, while in Leeds people seemed more likely to arrive by the vast network of bus services. In all cases, it seemed that wherever you lived in the community, it was easy and convenient to take transit or cycle to these centres.
In the most valuable parts of a town or city, cars easily take up more than their share of real estate, leading to clogged sidewalks and creating noise and emissions as people circle for parking lots. It’s left me wondering, why are pedestrianized areas so rare in Canada and the US? I wonder whether such lively commercial areas like Ottawa’s ByWard Market or Toronto’s Yonge Street could be better off without the noise, congestion, and pollution caused by drivers in search of a parking spot?
Boulevards, Promenades and Arcades
Even on streets where traffic is permitted, it’s so wonderful to see a high level of attention given to the pedestrian experience. I found examples of wide boulevards in both Mantova and Verona that accommodated streetscaping, patios, and a wide walking area with ground-floor storefronts facing the street, plus the generous buffer area from moving vehicles creates a really nice area to walk.
I find that too often a “balanced” main street is one that provides vehicle lanes and parking, with the leftover space given to pedestrians. The opposite is the “outside-in” approach, where the first objective is excellent pedestrian space, with the remainder given to cars.
I didn’t see equivalent versions of these on my walks around Glasgow and Leeds – in fact I was really surprised by the major lack of streetscaping and trees on the streets of Glasgow.
Just about every Ontario municipality has its own traffic calming design guide; what’s harder to find is widespread implementation of traffic calming (it’s almost as if these guides exist to limit their use, rather than encourage it).
It was refreshing to see different traffic calming techniques put into practice more systemically in the UK. Traffic restrictions were a very common form closer to the centres, where only buses and taxis were permitted on certain streets, helping keep volumes very low.
In Glasgow, I noticed a higher tendency to cul-de-sac streets (what the Dutch would call a “knip” which means “cut”). These are incredibly effective as they eliminate any through traffic on a street. Further though, they reduce turning conflicts on the main street and create an extra little area for public space.
Quality Train Service
I don’t need to emphasize this point too much, as most people know Europe for its easy trains. It was refreshing to find that Mantova’s central station, despite serving just 50,000 people, had more than 5 platforms and provided frequent train service to multiple destinations, including hourly departures to nearby Verona. Travelling from Leeds to Glasgow we found that even with a 30-minute transfer, trains were more than two hours faster than the direct bus alternative, and provided the added comfort of being able to move around and purchase snacks.
Even though the Leeds-Glasgow trip involved three separate operators, we purchased the whole trip under a single ticket with a barcode that was scanned by inspectors and at faregates. Finally, as a young parent being able to take a train and walk around with our six month old (as opposed to having her strapped to a carseat) made a world of difference for our comfort.
Travel is essential for innovation. While in Glasgow I learned that in the late 1800’s, the municipality sent a group of citizens to visit other European cities and look for new ideas for how to deal with the issues the town was facing. They were inspired by what they saw in Paris at the time, and this led to some real innovation locally. Another example is Davis, California, which owes its unique and rich bicycle culture to a pair of residents who had been inspired by living in the Netherlands. Today we would call this a “study tour” but these are increasingly rare as municipal budgets get tighter and travel is seen as frivolous. Still, we must find ways for our local decisionmakers to experience how things are done elsewhere.
Returning back home, I feel reinvigorated to bring new ideas to my profession and continue pushing for change.