Jane Jacobs, self-driving cars, and smartphone walking lanes

Fining distracted pedestrians who are paying attention to their smartphones is one option for communities. Here is another: a Chinese shopping center in Xi’an has a clearly marked lane for smartphone-using walkers.

Colorfully painted paths outside the Bairui Plaza shopping mall have been designated for walkers who cannot be bothered to look up from their devices…

Instead, messages painted along the lane cajole walkers to look up and pay attention.

“Please don’t look down for the rest of your life,” one message reads. “Path for the special use of the heads-down tribe,” another says…

Xi’an is not the first city to experiment with special areas for mobile phone use. In 2014, a street in the southwestern city of Chongqing was divided into two sections. On one side, phone use was prohibited, and on the other walkers were allowed to use their phones “at your own risk.”

The German city of Augsburg in 2016 embedded traffic lights on the surface of the street to prevent texting pedestrians from walking into traffic.

This will be a difficult issue to tackle for many communities. Here are two more additional ideas that may (or may not) help address these concerns:

  1. In reading multiple stories about distracted pedestrians on sidewalks, I am reminded of Jane Jacobs’ thoughts on lively sidewalk life. She argued that a lively street scene full of mixed uses will promote a thriving social scene. Could it be that sidewalks need to be more lively to keep the attention of pedestrians? If someone is walking down a bland block or through a shopping mall that does not really look any different than other shopping malls, it can be easier to pull out a smartphone. Of course, users might be so familiar with the walking area or their thoughts are elsewhere such that no level of liveliness would keep them from their smartphone.
  2. Perhaps some of the technology already being rolled out in cars and destined for significant use in driverless cars that helps cars sense other objects and respond accordingly could be implemented in cell phones. Imagine using your smartphone while walking and all of the sudden a radar screen pops up that indicates you are about to run into something. Or, perhaps it could have lights on different edges that could provide indications that objects are on that side. This is where Google Glass could be very useful: a display of nearby objects could always be within a user’s vision. Maybe technology will soon advance to a point where we have “bubbles” around us displaying information and nearby pedestrians or other objects could trigger some sort of alarm.

Separate walking lanes as well as punishments may not be enough. Given our reliance on technology to solve problems, I would not be surprised if new technology ends up as a substantial part of the solution proposed for problems posed by earlier technology. At the same time, this may be less about technology and more about the changing nature of public life.

When sidewalks and paths are in bad shape

I was reminded by seeing Blair Kamin’s complaints about a path at Northerly Island in Chicago that the condition of sidewalks and paths can matter a lot for those who want to use them. A few thoughts about my experiences with local sidewalks and paths:

  1. On one hand, I grew up near and am still located near a tremendous bike path system: the Prairie Path. Originally an electric interurban line that closed for good in the late 1950s, local residents and officials started converting it into a recreational asset in the 1960s. The path is generally wide, covers dozens of miles with connections of other trails, and offers access to a number of communities and parks. On the other hand, riding a bike on the path can be frustrating at times, particularly in sections with more roads and tracks that need to be crossed (and there are other parts where one can ride much longer without interruption) as well as more pedestrians who are less speedy and often take up more of the path. Additionally, the path offers access between communities but one can often be stuck with limited options with roadways and sidewalks as soon as they leave the path.
  2. Nearly all suburban roads are built for cars. People like to drive fast. Not all roads, particularly in older parts of town, offer adequate space for pedestrians or bikes. Many drivers do not look for bikes or pedestrians.
  3. Sidewalks are sometimes present and sometimes not. I know this is often dependent on the regulations when the road was built but it can be confusing how sidewalks suddenly appear and disappear.
  4. Sidewalks that do exist are often in various states of repair. Some are really narrow. Cracks are common as are different angles and difficult ramps on and off streets. This may be something I am more aware of because I have a road bike that can be harmed by these imperfections as well as young children who can more easily trip on uneven surfaces. Hence, I would almost always rather ride in the road because the condition of the street is usually much better than the sidewalk.

In other words, life for non-vehicles in the suburbs can be difficult, particularly when the infrastructure provided for them is less than ideal. I get it; the suburbs are about cars. At the same time, without adequate opportunities for walking and biking, people will likely simply not try them as much. And this likely continues to fuel a car-driving, suburban society.

(If one wanted to go further, the New Urbanists place a lot of emphasis on street life and allowing residents to get to important places within a reasonable walk. They are usually referring to mixed-use neighborhoods where people are consistently on the sidewalks. Some newer subdivisions are full of walking and bike paths, though these may have few connections to anything outside the neighborhood. In other words, there are some people arguing sidewalks and paths are important – particularly those interested in vibrant street life or interested in boosting property values – but this has not trickled down to all suburban places.)

Rat balloons – “Scabby” – started in the Chicago area

I have seen at least a few large inflatable rats while driving around in recent years – even in front of my own employer – and these rats have their roots in Chicago area union protests:

The rat balloons, nicknamed “Scabby,” started in the Chicago area in 1990 and have grown into a worldwide symbol for union strikes. But the balloons aren’t without controversy. From the picket line to the courtroom, employers have tried to snuff out Scabby many times…

Ken Lambert, a former organizer with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers, says he was searching for a way to draw more awareness to a 1990 picket in north suburban Chicago…

Lambert says he chose a rat because the animal has long been used as a symbol to call out those who oppose unions. Fellow organizer Don Newton helped secure the funds for the first balloon, Lambert says…

The legality of using Scabby as a form of union protest has been contested, with many of the rulings relying on the interpretation of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The act ensures rights for striking unions to picket the location of an employer or contractor, while also protecting nearby companies or other organizations employers from being targeted.

The article goes on to say that the unions believe the rats attract attention and informing informing the public about union workers. But, some of the material online suggests the rats serve another purpose: to provoke employers and organizations. I wonder how the mixture of trying to gather public support while poking at your opponent with a giant rat works out. The article suggests at the end that it is not known whether inflatable rats lead to better outcomes for union. Does it cause the two sides to double down or make other organizations think twice?

More broadly, this could be a powerful protest device for other groups. Why don’t more movements have large inflatables that can fit on sidewalks or public easements? The presence of certain symbols or words could draw attention, particularly near busy roads and intersections.

CT suburb considering fines for “distracted walking”

The suburb of Stamford, Connecticut is considering penalizing those walking under the influence of phones:

Texting or even talking on an electronic device may soon be illegal in Stamford if a proposal to outlaw ‘distracted walking’ is approved…

“They’re oblivious to cars,” Stamford City representative, John Zelinsky said.

Zelinsky said the Pedestrian Safety Ordinance is modeled after one approved in Honolulu late last month, and would carry a $30 fine if police catch you in the act.

Such behavior can be dangerous for both users and others on the sidewalks and streets. Yet, legislating distractedness out of walking, bicycling, and driving is a tricky business. Does walking and talking with someone count as distracted walking? Is it okay to suddenly stop right in the middle of a busy sidewalk to take a phone call?

I have long wondered about implementing traffic regulations on busy sidewalks (see a story from England about this). Sidewalks are public spaces but also important conduits for foot traffic and some kinds of vehicles. Overcrowding can occur; see the recent example of Manhattan. And how people use the sidewalks can vary dramatically with use ranging from running and powerwalking to strolling to standing or sitting for conversation.

Overcrowded sidewalks in Manhattan

Manhattan is crowded and this includes the sidewalks:

While crowding is hardly a new problem in the city, the sidewalks that cemented New York’s reputation as a world-class walking city have become obstacle courses as more people than ever live and work in the city and tourism surges. The problem is particularly acute in Manhattan. Around Penn Station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, two of the city’s main transit hubs, commuters clutching coffee cups and briefcases squeeze by one another during the morning and evening rushes. Throngs of shoppers and visitors sometimes bring swaths of Lower Manhattan to a standstill, prompting some local residents to cite clogged sidewalks as their biggest problem in a recent community survey.

Foot traffic has slowed to a shuffle along some of the city’s most famous corridors. On Fifth Avenue, between 54th and 55th Streets, 26,831 pedestrians — enough to fill Madison Square Garden and Radio City Music Hall combined — passed through in three hours on a weekday in May 2015, up from 20,639 the year before, according to city data.

Transportation officials are taking measures to alleviate the congestion. To help accommodate foot traffic, they are adding more pedestrian plazas across the city, expanding the presence of a streetscape feature first embraced by the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. One is scheduled to open soon on 33rd Street near Penn Station. There are also plans to widen a half-dozen sidewalks in Flushing, Queens, in the next year (the city’s sidewalks vary in width, but must be at least five feet wide).

While a crowded sidewalk is simply a symptom of a crowded city, it resonates deeply because it affects almost everyone. Unlike overstuffed subways or tourist attractions like, say, Times Square, there is no going around the sidewalks. They are to New York what freeways are to Los Angeles: an essential part of the infrastructure. Sidewalks not only get people from Point A to Point B, but also serve as a shared public space for rich and poor, native and tourist alike.

As Jane Jacobs highlighted, crowded sidewalks are critical for thriving cities. And, don’t most urbanists today want more people walking? As the article notes, this is a problem in numerous cities where tourism is encouraged and there are a mix of important uses in proximity.

There seems to be an easy answer that is not discussed here: close more streets for stretches to allow for more pedestrian traffic. If there are so many people walking, this shouldn’t hurt businesses too much. Additionally, it could allow for pedestrian corridors that might also then reduce foot traffic on nearby streets. At least, perhaps some areas would benefit from road diets. If you have so many people in a small area and then prioritize vehicular traffic, problems like this will arise.

Even more radical than limiting vehicles in major urban stretches would be some version of the High Line in high-trafficked areas. Imagine raised platforms for walking above the sidewalk that could add both capacity and recreation options.

Embedding traffic lights in sidewalks to help pedestrians

Incessant smartphone use is leading to urban adaptations:

That is why officials in the city of Augsburg became concerned when they noticed a new phenomenon: Pedestrians were so busy looking at their smartphones that they were ignoring traffic lights.

The city has attempted to solve that problem by installing new traffic lights embedded in the pavement — so that pedestrians constantly looking down at their phones won’t miss them.

“It creates a whole new level of attention,” city spokeswoman Stephanie Lermen was quoted as saying. Lermen thinks the money is wisely spent: A recent survey conducted in several European cities, including Berlin, found that almost 20 percent of pedestrians were distracted by their smartphones. Younger people are most likely to risk their safety for a quick look at their Facebook profiles or WhatsApp messages, the survey found…

But city officials say their work is justified: The idea to install such traffic lights came after a 15-year-old girl was killed by a tram. According to police reports, she was distracted by her smartphone as she crossed the tracks.

The direction of change is with the smartphone users: their safety matters and urban planners and officials must adjust.

I assume the future self-driving cars will be able to communicate with smartphones (or whatever devices we are all sporting at that point) to protect cars from the pedestrians. At that point, the cars will be far safer than the zombie or distracted or unpredictable activity of any pedestrian.

When broken sidewalks limit mobility

This story from Shreveport, Louisiana discusses how poorer neighborhoods in the city tend to have more problems with sidewalks:

But Murphy’s citation for walking in the street along Highland’s crumbling sidewalks spotlights the city’s infrastructure failures in the era of the new mayor’s promises to repair and beautify Shreveport’s streets…

For now, there’s no set date when Shreveporters can expect to see most sidewalks installed or fixed, though plans are in progress. And 25 years after the Americans with Disabilities Act went into effect, unsafe sidewalks with missing or poorly-maintained ramps are a common sight…

“If they contact our offices and let us know, we will do what we can to correct those places and make it accommodating for them because a lot of the places around town don’t have those ramps available and we are aware of the issues,” Harris said.

But in terms of fixing the city’s roads and sidewalks, Harris said residential neighborhoods take a back seat to downtown and other highly-trafficked areas…

The Shreveport-Caddo 2030 Master Plan includes a transportation component to address pedestrian issues, but it likely will be years before Shreveport is brought in line with major cities, according to Loren Demerath, a Centenary sociology professor who studies the importance of pedestrian spaces to communities and has been active in local efforts to make Shreveport more bikeable and walkable.

An interesting mix of race, social class, and disabilities all having to do with a simple piece of infrastructure: sidewalks. Without well-maintained sidewalks, it is difficult to be a pedestrian as it either requires a more dangerous route on the road or walking through grass or other areas. If anything, this would be a safety issue in many neighborhoods and discussing safety, particularly when it comes to kids or others who need more protection or space (the disabled or perhaps the elderly), tends to lead to better outcomes. But, it sounds like Shreveport has some work to do in this area and I would guess the city would cite funding issues as a reason the sidewalks are so uneven.

And for those who subscribe to broken windows theory, do broken sidewalks have a similar effect? While the residents may not have much to do with breaking sidewalks, it might just suggest that the city doesn’t care as much about the neighborhood.