Lessons from Denmark

Everyone is a pedestrian. This seems like an obvious enough statement, but it’s one that people tend to forget, at least judging by how impatient motorists can be when they’re forced to pause for 15 seconds at a crosswalk.

As someone who normally navigates Vancouver by foot or on transit, I noticed an ugly change happen when I took a job one summer that forced me to drive around the downtown core. I began to hate pedestrians. They walked too slowly, they made it impossible to turn right on a red, and they often made it impossible to turn left, period.

Of course, as soon as I left my job (partly due to my distaste for driving all over the city), I eagerly demanded the pedestrian right-of-way downtown, under the assumption that there is no real need to drive downtown, and wondering why anyone sane would choose to do it.

Currently, there is a lack of permanently pedestrianised streets in Vancouver. The Granville Street Redesign Project is a step in the right direction, though only a block or two will be permanently free of cars. The City of Vancouver’s website acknowledges that only 32 percent of trips to, from, and in Vancouver are made up of vehicle drivers, and thus more priority should be given to pedestrians and cyclists.

Apparently, the city is willing to blockade streets during the Olympics, while the city erupts in total mayhem, but little is done to facilitate pedestrians and keep Vancouver’s street life vibrant in a more permanent manner. Small pockets of devoted individuals continue to organize car-free days during the summer in Kitsilano, West Van, Commercial Drive and Main Street, in an effort to remind Vancouverites of the possibilities that lie in pedestrianisation.

This city recognized years ago that there is a future in rapid transit, and that automobiles are not the means of transportation that will take us into the future. Vancouver is well regarded for its dense, livable downtown that melds commercial and residential. However, noise, pollution, lackluster street life, isolation, and endangerment of pedestrians all add up to the conclusion that cars should not necessarily rule the roads of Vancouver.

An alternative way of making a city livable and accessible is to follow the Copenhagen model of shared streets. This concept originated about 30 years ago in the Netherlands, and is based on the idea that coddling drivers with stop signs and stoplights creates carelessness and inattention. Instead, it suggests the old Spiderman axiom: “With great power comes great responsibility.” – In this case, take away the stop signs, divider lines, and sidewalks, and drivers will be forced to pay attention and take more care. Clearly, inattentiveness to the road is a problem in Vancouver, with citizens needing law enforcement to convince them to quit texting while driving.

Former urban studies student from Vancouver, Alex Pomeroy, is now living in Copenhagen and says that he “[feels] safe walking down the middle of the street, and cars are very mindful of pedestrians and cyclists, and vise-versa.” He adds that “the city centre, near and around the Strøget (the main pedestrian thoroughfare) is quite conducive to a sense of shared space.”

The one rule that makes this system work so well in places like Holland and Denmark is a speed limit of 30 km/h, based on the fact that the maximum speed that pedestrians can escape relatively unscathed from a traffic accident is about 32km/h. A 2004 Salon article that compiles much of this information also notes that annual traffic fatalities dropped from several per year to zero in these areas.

Considering the love affair that most other developed nations, including Canada, have with their cars, this type of solution would not be met without kicking and screaming. After all, devoting just one lane on the Burrard Bridge to cyclists proved to be one of the summer’s most controversial developments. Alex mentions the possible hindrance of Vancouver’s “strict grid system,” saying “the layout of the city here is obviously much more organic than Vancouver.” He also attributes the success of the Copenhagen model largely to the “popularity of cycling in the city.”

Vancouver will not be Copenhagen – at least not in the near future. But this European model certainly has merit worth contemplating, and perhaps one day this city will learn from the Danish and truly embrace the radical concept of walking.

//Natalie Corbo

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