A quick note from the road.
Alice St in Newtown provides a very simple idea of what to do to improve pedestrian safety when crossing the road. This idea is easy, simple and cheap, and can be broadly applied to similar streets everywhere. I love stuff like this.
The idea is easy – place pedestrian islands in the middle of the road at fairly frequent intervals.
Simple, easy, cheap. It also has the side benefit of making an enormous difference to the ease and safety of crossing the road.
I love simple things like this – cheap, easy fixes which can be broadly applied to very many different-but-similar urban contexts. And that make a real difference, despite their lack of flashy chrome, and their inherent simplicity. I applaud the council that took the initiative to do this, and I don’t usually praise councils on principle. The council, however, that took this terrific action in urban planning and design would have been either the City of Sydney or pre-amalgamation Marrickville Council. Kudos to them.
Here is a crude Google street view pic of the pedestrian islands in question.
And this is its location.
Why is this simple change so impactful?
There’s a variety of reasons why which belie the seeming simplicity of this ‘intervention’. This simple change has complex effects on the way people in vehicles and people walking along the street interact with it. Complex effects emanating from a simple change. Gotta love it.
So to begin: This road is typical of many in the area and across other parts of Sydney. In fact, it’s a type of road and urban form that can be found across countless places around the globe. Thus, this simple change can have a permeating affect on road design and the psychology of its human users across the world. A domino effect, assuming the first domino can be isolated, and propagated. A local through road, lined with parked cars, one through lane in each direction, with tightly packed houses and apartment blocks lined along it. There are frequent side streets meeting it on each side. There is a continuous footpath on each side of the road which is lined with street trees and the rest of the usual roadside detritus. There are some driveways as well, mainly for the apartment blocks on the street.
This is a local through-road. It carries largely local-ish traffic. It is lined with parked cars, has one through lane in each direction, and a footpath and trees on each edge. The urban form it drives through, and that is aligned to it, is a mix of tightly packed houses and small scale walk up apartment blocks. There are frequent side streets running off it creating a complex and eclectic street pattern. The mix of residential type form along the street can also be described as quite eclectic. There are also some driveways cutting into the side of the street, mainly to access the walk-up apartment blocks. Traffic is light to moderate. There are two sets of traffic lights, one at each end of the street. These have the affect of making natural gaps in the flow of traffic. There are also one or two pedestrian crossings to increase these gaps in traffic. These are navigable gaps in traffic.
Navigable gaps in traffic are broad and reliably frequent breaks in traffic. It has the effect of making the street relatively safe and easy to cross. This creates a permeable street; one which is relatively easily crossed. This is in stark contrast to what I call ‘road walls‘. Road walls are roads that act as hard barriers between whatever lies on their adjacent sides. These cannot be crossed easily or safely. Crossing them is unduly risky. Therefore they become hard barriers between each side, between neighbourhoods, etc. Ironically, planners often use them as their focal point to organise everything around. This works just great when zooming around Google Maps as if you were a soaring eagle. Unfortunately, this also falls flat on its face when looked at from the perspective of a gravity-bound human being. Humans can’t fly. They live and experience their city on the ground. So, to planners: please throw this baby out with the bath water. It is lazy and dumb, but a sadly popular tenet of shit-arse planning. Think of your actions as they would affect humans. Cheers and thank you.
It’s like arranging seating in a house to stare at a blank, ugly wall, rather than orienting it to look out the window. Or something. I’m not very good at this.
So yeah, psychologically, Alice St in Newtown is permeable. It’s certainly a street that needs some thought to be crossed, negotiated. But it is not an unduly taxing amount. It is eminently crossable. This is good for local permeation. Or, simply put, walking around your hood. And walking to the shops, etc.
So how do the traffic islands fit into this?
They create literal islands – safe zones – in the middle of the road. They have the affect of making a road much more permeable – i.e. more crossable, less of a physical and psychological barrier. The frequency of the pedestrian islands is a simple interaction of the easy time distance they can be reached weighed against the aid to crossing the road they provide. The islands run up and down the street every 80-160m or so. This means as a person on foot, you are never more than a fairly easy stroll from the nearest one.
A pedestrian island breaks your cross of the street into two chunks, rather than one much more complex traffic negotiation. Looking for a safe gap in only one direction of flowing traffic is much less taxing than looking for a safe gap in two opposed flows of traffic. You can look for a safe gap, cross to the middle, then look for the next safe gap. This is easy as well because you are aware that there are frequent breaks in the traffic. This also prevents the practice of standing on the road centre line waiting for the next break in traffic. At night, and in the rain, this makes you almost invisible. This is not good for staying alive. It also has the affect of annoying easily-annoyed drivers. People have human nature. And human nature is not always optimal and/or how we might want it to be. Just sayin’. Best to work with it, rather than poke the bull.
Furthermore, the very physical presence of the pedestrian islands alters the psychology of navigating the road as a driver and crossing it as a pedestrian. The road markings literally kink around it. The metal road barriers marking their presence, and placing a very strong psychological barrier in the way of the pudgy humans they are protecting, are plastered in fluoro stripes. They are unmissable. For a driver, the effect of the road flowing around these islands of safe-pedestrian is to both visually draw their attention to any crossers, and to subconsciously remind them that people are about, have a right to cross the street, and acts as a subtle but fair encourager to share the road, just a bit. It is integral and easy. This is simple, brilliant road design. It works with human psychology and its subconscious; to become just a natural part of navigating the street. It fits equally into the psychology and physical act of crossing a road too. And, in large part because of its simplicity and cheapness, it can be copied and pasted into similar urban contexts anywhere. This makes a big difference. This is bonafide road/urban porn. and this approach should be copied and pasted and done more often. I love it.
In summary, I’ve probably missed some key considerations, but I think I’ve made the point somewhere that this small and simple change to the physical road environment has a huge and positive effect on how we move through and think about our urban environment. This is a very small change. One that completely alters our subconscious interactions with our physical, urban environment. It shows how our physical environment affects our human nature. Our subconscious. How we look at things, and feel about them. Even fundamentally how we ‘feel’ our way around this physical, urban, environment. I think this is so brilliant because it sits at the crux of good urban design, planning, and policy making – that is, it looks at the physical environment, human nature, and makes an easy change that fundamentally alters how us humans interact with our environment, and each other – drivers to pedestrians, pedestrians to drivers. This is also a change that can be made in countless other places. Thus, it should become an urban design template to be pasted over and over again in countless places, improving the lives of everyone in a small but meaningful way.
I would love to be more succinct, but I think that will take a lot more practise.
I hope you’ve gained something from this.