10 August 2011

It’s Not Easy Being a Flâneur These Days

a flâneur I live and work in the centre of Edinburgh and I’m a walker, not a driver. I set off on a walk about my city with a spring in my step, fancying myself as some kind of flâneur, but things don’t often turn out that way. I am herded into confined spaces, forced to squeeze my way along absurdly narrow fenced-off footways which do not allow me even the relief of stepping on to the road to avoid obstacles. And those obstacles – they’re people. How is it that people become obstacles and annoyances so easily in this environment, despite one’s best intentions? I am trapped behind barriers at junctions, made to wait lamely and not always for an apparent reason, the sequence of traffic lights being none of my concern. My safety has been ensured by anonymous officers, just so long as I follow the rules and keep my eyes always on the lights and signs. We wait there, squashed together and anxious, but we dare not cross, for how can we tell that a car won’t come racing out of that side street over there?

I am made to feel that my presence is not welcome, and this is in the middle of a city, where pedestrian movement is vital. My freedom is definitely, openly restricted, and I complain about this not from some “reclaim the streets” radical resistance, but because I am certain that it raises antagonisms between different kinds of users of public spaces, and makes for a miserable experience for everyone involved.

Places have real but intangible qualities, peculiar psychological dynamics that become ingrained in them. This can be more or less conducive to safety and amicable relations, more or less congenial. Such things underlie the psychogeography of our towns and cities, and hence their culture. They are supremely important.

Think about the experience. When walking, we naturally assess our surroundings to identify the quickest, safest or most pleasant routes to take. In the over-regulated city, these choices are frustrated, our half-conscious physical inclinations rudely restricted. Because decisions are made for us, our satisfying attunement to the environment, which we make use of in finding our way about, is disrupted at every turn. I ought to be able to cross the road right here, on a point lying on my natural path, but instead I must walk twenty metres along a narrow footway in the opposite direction, hemmed in by a barrier and struggling to pass other pedestrians, before finally arriving at a crossing. In the context of the segregation of pedestrians and drivers, the barriers, crossings, lights, and signs help make us safe, but this indicates not that these measures are good but that we need to change the context that necessitates them, this context in which danger is only a step away.

There is an alternative, and it’s called shared space. It not only has the benefit of freeing pedestrians from their marginalized role, but it results in safer and generally more welcoming urban environments, in which we can relate to each other not as obstacles but as fellow members of a community. On top of that, traffic flow often increases, even while average traffic speeds and the numbers of accidents are reduced.

It’s time to get rid of traffic lights, signs, and the separation of carriageway and footway.

More to come on this topic some time soon (probably).

Ben Hamilton-Baillie, Shared Space: Reconciling People, Places and Traffic (PDF)
Equality Streets
FiT Roads

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