Is People-Centric Urban Planning Sweeping the Globe?

The short answer: yes.

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Photo by Paul Krueger

Photo by Paul Krueger

The Economist recently ran an article about the global transition currently underway from a focus on car-centric city planning to infrastructure and laws that favor people walking and biking. For those who still feel like they’re constantly dodging death at every turn just trying to move across their city on two wheels or two feet, that might come as a bit of a surprise.

Despite the invaluable work of the Vision Zero movement, the rate of traffic fatalities in North America is still alarmingly high. Antagonism between people in cars and people on bikes remains at a fever pitch in some cities. People trying to bike to work are still forced to ride on the sidewalk in many communities. Pedestrians are forced to walk three blocks in the wrong direction to find a safe place to cross the street. For those for whom idyllic notions of car-free city streets remain depressingly out-of-reach, The Economist’s article elicits a collective groan of “Whaaaaaaaaaat?????”

But keep your finger on the pulse of urban planning on a global scale, and you will see that this movement really is emerging, and quickly.

In his 2013 book, “Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design,” writer and urbanist Charles Montgomery advances a theory about how a focus on people-centric urban planning can not only make great strides in combatting climate change, but can make us fundamentally happier and healthier people as well. Montgomery begins with the example of Bogotá, Colombia which – under the leadership of Antanas Mockus and Enrique Peñalosa – was transformed from one of the world’s most violent and corrupt cities to a relatively peaceful, clean city populated by engaged residents in less than 10 years. Much of this was done through a investment in biking and walking, restoration of green spaces and a directed focus on making streets livable to make them safe.

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Bogotá’s radical transformation did not go unnoticed. Their weekly ciclovía, where over 120 km of the capital’s streets are closed to automobile traffic on Sundays and holidays, has inspired similar events around the world. The Economist article jumps off with a snapshot of a the Raahgiri (“reclaim your streets”) in Gurgaon, a city in Northern India which has been hosting a weekly car-free day since 2013. Paris, Milan, New York and others have all enacted similar schemes. It goes on to mention other notable people-centric transitions in cities worldwide: reduced speed limits in Toronto and London, a significant reduction of private vehicle ownership in Paris, an integrated smartphone app for the public bike share in Copenhagen, a planned network of bike paths in Los Angeles, a city centre closed to cars in Dublin.

It’s inspiring, it’s exciting, and it’s happening at a rapid pace. But what of the rest of the world? What of the millions people who don’t live in international metropolises? Who live in cities or towns which aren’t known worldwide for progressive transportation policies, or aren’t really known worldwide at all. What of those live in small North American cities and towns where car-centricity is still the norm? Where is their people-powered revolution?

As it turns out, everywhere.

Salt Lake City, UT just built North America’s first protected intersection; the Idaho Stop was invented in, well, Idaho; a bike equity advocate from Chicago, IL was just honored by the White House; Portland, OR is practically one giant bike-powered microbrewery; Milwaukee, WI police are aggressively ticketing motorists who fail to yield to crosswalks; Halifax, NS is about to install its first protected bike lane; Portland, ME just accepted a Mayor’s Challenge for Safer People and Safer Streets; Cleveland, OH is celebrating progress towards its first protected bike lane; Calgary, AB just participated in an Alberta Bicycle Commuters Conference; Maryland just dedicated $14 million to biking and walking projects; Virgina opened a 52-mile biking and walking trail; Atlanta, GA just approved a plan for 31 miles of bike lanes; Jackson, MS just implemented a Complete Streets Policy. I could go on.

Bike and pedestrian-friendly streets are no longer only the domain of the Copenhagens and Londons of the world, and innovation in people-centric planning is no longer limited to big cities. This transformation is taking place on a local and global scale in both the most-expected and the least-expected of places.

So if you’ve been fighting this fight for a long time and you feel like you’re constantly hitting a wall, don’t feel weary. Hold tight, change is coming. In North America, we’ve spent decades building cities for cars rather than people. It is a lot of work to undo. But we are at the beginning of a movement that will radically transform the way we move around our communities, and in doing so will transform the ways in which we interact with our environment and with each other. Those of us who walk and ride are at the forefront of this movement, so keep fighting.

Keep using the full lane until they build a separate lane for you, keep safely rolling through stop signs until they design a separate set of laws for people on bikes, keep jaywalking across your street until they remove cars from that street altogether. Keep pedalling, keep pushing, we’re on to something big.


Hilary Angus is the Online Editor at Momentum Mag, she is based in Vancouver, BC. You can chit-chat with her about bikes, politics or really anything you like on Twitter @HilaryAngus.

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