For at least the past 50 years, urban planning has often centred vehicular traffic at the expense of pedestrian mobility. This has had an adverse effect on the environment as well as road user safety. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), traffic fatalities claim more than 1.35 million lives each year, with more than half being pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.
More recently, there has been a greater push for safer, greener and more liveable cities around the world. This has led to renewed interest in pedestrianisation and its role in improving the safety and quality of life for urban dwellers, ideally without undermining the convenience and economic benefits that come with high traffic flow.
Pedestrian crossings have been one of the most effective ways to manage the coexistence of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in cities and suburbs alike. In major metropolitans, these have been expanded into pedestrian scrambles; crossings that temporarily stop vehicular traffic from all directions, allowing a greater number of pedestrians to walk through an intersection at the same time. Some well-known examples include Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo, Oxford Circus in London and the Barnes Dance in New York City.
Pedestrian bridges also provide a safe mode of passage for cyclists and walkers without interfering with traffic at all. The Ponte Segunda Circular in Lisbon, Portugal is a particularly elegant solution. The overhead bridge, located in the central business area, creates a network of connections for pedestrians and cyclists to commute between residential and commercial districts safely without adding to the city’s congestion. Its distinctive orange passage and sprawling structure were inspired by the farm paths that used to crisscross the local landscape, creating what is considered one of the most beautiful pedestrian bridges in the world.
In cities surrounded by water, pedestrian bridges have also become architectural feats, combining the marvels of design, functionality and engineering, such as The Peace Bridge that spans the Bow River in Calgary, Canada. Used by 6,000 people daily, the partially enclosed helical structure of the bridge features a central bike lane with pedestrian footpaths on either side.
Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman, became the leading light for a radical rethink on how best to organise roads for safety; he got rid of all traffic lights and signage at the busiest intersection in Drachten, which handled 22,000 cars a day. As a result, the annual accident rate plummeted to two from 36 crashes per year previously. Traffic moved more briskly, while backups and road rage virtually disappeared.
Thus, the woonerf, or ‘living street’ was born: cars, pedestrians, cyclists and other local residents travel together without traditional safety infrastructure to guide them. It seems counterintuitive, but the emphasis on separation of functions actually creates a more dangerous environment. Once free of controls like traffic lights, stop signs, curbs, painted lines, cycle paths and the like, everyone is forced to become more alert and ultimately more cooperative.
Traffic and urban design consultant Ben Hamilton-Baillie told Salon that it was all about the two-way interaction between people and traffic: “It was a vicious or, rather, a virtuous circle: The busier the streets are, the safer they become. So once you drive people off the street, they become less safe.”
A woonerf design emphasises low-speed limits, limited sight distance and narrow travel paths to reduce the volume of traffic and ensure that vehicles are moving safely amongst pedestrians. The concept has become increasingly popular, moving beyond the Netherlands and Belgium to Sweden, Canada, New Zealand, the US and the UK.
Interestingly, these developed nations are simply following in the footsteps of places like China, Vietnam and Iran, where this seemingly chaotic but ultimately safer arrangement has long been the norm. Research has shown a marked improvement in accidents, severity of accidents and fatality rates wherever controls and boundaries are taken away.
Another surprising bonus is that slowing down cars is not only safer, it’s actually more efficient and increases journey time. Evidence from countries and cities that introduced a design speed of 30 kilometres per hour, such as many in the European Union, demonstrates that slower speeds improve traffic flow and reduce congestion.
Innovating for the future
The accelerated adoption of the Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities is also paving the way for improvements in pedestrian safety and traffic flow through innovation. According to research firm IDC, global spending on IoT and smart city technologies reached USD124 billion (RM515.2 billion) in 2020, with intelligent transportation solutions accounting for 14 percent.
Besides self-driven cars, new research in adaptive traffic signals - where timing changes to traffic lights are automatic based on the actual number of cars and pedestrians at an intersection – and smart corridors - where warnings can be sent to upcoming vehicles on congestion, road hazards and alternate routes – are also making waves. These solutions are actively being trialled in American pilot projects, such as city centre routes in Columbus, Ohio as well as a highway in Wyoming.