Forget “pedestrian fast lanes”: we should be slowing our cities down

Slow down. Image: Johannes Eisele/AFP/Getty.

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 per cent of British people find slow walking the most annoying aspect of high-street shopping, while 30 per cent say that they would like a system of fast lanes to cater for the high street’s speedier pedestrians.

And so the retailer obliged, and last weeken initiated a one-week trial of “fast track” phone-free pedestrian lanes, marked on the footway through a shopping complex in Liverpool.

Similar schemes already have made appearances in Washington DC and Chongqing, China, so could this be the start of a global trend?

Slow on the uptake

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.

Doing it right: the Lungomare in Naples. Image: Nicola since 1972/Flickr.

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.

Cities of the future

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.The Conversation

Nick Tyler is Chadwick Professor of Civil Engineering at UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Coming soon: CityMetric will relaunch as City Monitor, a new publication dedicated to the future of cities

Coming soon!

Later this month, CityMetric will be relaunching with an entirely new look and identity, as well as an expanded editorial mission. We’ll become City Monitor, a name that reflects both a ramping up of our ambitions as well as our membership in a network of like-minded publications coming soon from New Statesman Media Group. We can’t wait to share the new website with you, but in the meantime, here’s what CityMetric readers should know about what to expect from this exciting transition.  

Regular CityMetric readers may have already noticed a few changes around here since the spring. CityMetric’s beloved founding editor, Jonn Elledge, has moved on to some new adventures, and a new team has formed to take the site into the future. It’s led by yours truly – I’m Sommer Mathis, the editor-in-chief of City Monitor. Hello!

My background includes having served as the founding editor of CityLab, editor-in-chief of Atlas Obscura, and editor-in-chief of DCist, a local news publication in the District of Columbia. I’ve been reporting on and writing about cities in one way or another for the past 15 years. To me, there is no more important story in the world right now than how cities are changing and adapting to an increasingly challenging global landscape. The majority of the world’s population lives in cities, and if we’re ever going to be able to tackle the most pressing issues currently facing our planet – the climate emergency, rising inequality, the Covid-19 pandemic ­­­– cities are going to have to lead the way.

That’s why City Monitor is going to be a global publication dedicated to the future of cities everywhere – not just in the UK (nor for that matter just in the US, where I live). Our mission will be to help our readers, many of whom are in leadership positions around the globe, navigate how cities are changing and discover what’s next in the world of urban policy. We’ll do that through original reporting, expert opinion and most crucially, a data-driven approach that emphasises evidence and rigorous analysis. We want to arm local decision-makers and those they work in concert with – whether that’s elected officials, bureaucratic leaders, policy advocates, neighbourhood activists, academics and researchers, entrepreneurs, or plain-old engaged citizens – with real insights and potential answers to tough problems. Subjects we’ll cover include transportation, infrastructure, housing, urban design, public safety, the environment, the economy, and much more.

The City Monitor team is made up of some of the most experienced urban policy journalists in the world. Our managing editor is Adam Sneed, also a CityLab alum where he served as a senior associate editor. Before that he was a technology reporter at Politico. Allison Arieff is City Monitor’s senior editor. She was previously editorial director of the urban planning and policy think tank SPUR, as well as a contributing columnist for The New York Times. Staff writer Jake Blumgart most recently covered development, housing, and politics for WHYY, the local public radio station in Philadelphia. And our data reporter is Alexandra Kanik, whose previous roles include data reporting for Louisville Public Media in Kentucky and PublicSource in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Our team will continue to grow in the coming weeks, and we’ll also be collaborating closely with our editorial colleagues across New Statesman Media Group. In fact, we’re launching a whole network of new publications this fall, covering topics such as the clean energy transition, foreign direct investment, technology, banks and more. Many of these sectors will frequently overlap with our cities coverage, and a key part of our plan is make the most of the expertise that all of these newsrooms combined will bring to bear on our journalism.

City Monitor will go live later this month. In the meantime, please visit to sign up for our forthcoming email newsletter.

As for CityMetric, some of its archives have already been moved over to the new website, and the rest will follow not long after. If you’re looking for a favourite piece from CityMetric’s past, for a time you’ll still be able to find it here, but before long the whole archive will move over to City Monitor.

On behalf of the City Monitor team, I’m thrilled to invite you to come along for the ride at our forthcoming digs. You can already follow City Monitor on LinkedIn, and on Twitter, sign up or keep following our existing account, which will switch over to our new name shortly. If you’re interested in learning more about the potential for a commercial partnership with City Monitor, please get in touch with our director of partnerships, Joe Maughan.

I want to thank and congratulate Jonn Elledge on a brilliant run. Everything we do from here on out will be building on the legacy of his work, and the community that he built here at CityMetric. Cheers, Jonn!

In the meantime, stay tuned, and thank you from all of us for being a loyal CityMetric reader. We couldn’t have done any of this without you.

Sommer Mathis is editor-in-chief of City Monitor.