Everyone has experienced it. Striding along in a purposeful hurry, your progress is thwarted by a slow-moving pedestrian, dawdling along the pavement. Perhaps they’re talking into their mobile phone, looking lost or just plain taking their time. It can drive you mad.
The question is: should it?
According to unsubstantiated research commissioned by UK retailer Argos, 47% of British people find slow walking the most annoying aspect of high-street shopping, while 30% say that they would like a system of fast lanes to cater for the high street’s speedier pedestrians.
And so the retailer has obliged, initiating a one-week trial of “fast track” phone-free pedestrian lanes, marked on the footway through a shopping complex in Liverpool.
In the past, the retail sector has been notoriously slow in supporting schemes such as pedestrianisation in town centres, on the basis that the reduction in car traffic would reduce their trade. In fact, the opposite has usually turned out to be the case. Even so, it will be interesting to see if the scheme provides a better retail experience and boost sales. I have to say, I am doubtful.
For one thing, it’s probable that many people will ignore the lanes: especially if they’re too absorbed in their phones to notice the markings on the pavement.
But then perhaps this is because a mobile phone provides a greater source of interest to people than the environment around them. As far as one can tell, the pedestrian environment in many cities is rather featureless, even grim. It’s not clear that pedestrian lanes could achieve better results for retailers than, say, making their products, services and appearance sufficiently appealing to attract people’s attention.
But my real concern runs deeper. What makes a city is its people. Buildings and infrastructure should be designed and constructed to serve them, and to help improve their quality of life. To this end, a city’s design should encourage courtesy.
People – and especially elderly people – should not have to struggle to cross the road in a short time, to avoid annoying drivers, or constantly worry about other, hurrying pedestrians. Our public spaces should not be so frightening as to exclude vision- or hearing-impaired people.
The problem is that we have spent so much of the last few decades designing traffic systems that we think that people behave like cars. But they don’t. Cars need lots of room, and formal structures such as lanes and traffic lights to allocate time and space on the roads, because they cannot share.
People, on the other hand, are essentially social beings, who respond sensorially to the individuals and places around them. We have higher ideals than just occupying space for the shortest possible time. Providing space and time to pause, breathe, linger and live is one of the great urban design objectives.
By creating spaces that make it easy for people to give way to each other, to stop and chat, we can enhance the social use and enjoyment of our public spaces. And stress-reduction through urban design is not only desirable – it’s also achievable. We can see the success of schemes designed to encourage lingering in spaces such as Campo di Siena, Broadway in New York, the Lungomare in Naples. In places such as these, people are encouraged to stop, look around, enjoy a coffee, chat, absorb the atmosphere.
As a result, people feel happier and more relaxed – they enjoy themselves. The city feels better, the shops have more trade, and people engage with their surroundings, rather than switching off (or switching their phones on).
As part of my research on future cities, I have been part of discussions with people from a variety of professional sectors, including health, planning, heritage, architecture, education and retail. We talked about which features help improve quality of life in our cities, and make them more sustainable.
Overwhelmingly, the strongest comment from each group has been that the future city should be slower, more relaxed, with more of our daily essentials accessible to everyone within walking distance.
Just because slow walkers are said to cause stress, doesn’t mean we should design the city to accommodate fast walkers. Nor should we be designing urban environments which forcibly slow people down. The answer, it seems to me, is to create spaces that cause people to want to slow down: where the real is more pleasurable than the virtual, and people want to linger and enjoy their environment. At that point, fast lanes for pedestrians become irrelevant.