Pedestrian Associations and Walkability (1988)

Pedestrian Associations and Walkability:  A Progress Report from Ottawa, Canada

a presentation by Chris Bradshaw, co-founder & secretary of Ottawalk and co-founder and member, Ottawa Pedestrians Citizens Committee,
to the 9th Annual Pedestrian Conference, “Effecting Change”,
Boulder, Colorado, September 22-24, 1988 [In the nine years this conference had been held, Chris was the first speaker to address the need for -- and possibility of -- organizing pedestrians.  Ottawalk thrived for 12 years and became the first of a trend, mostly in the U.S., of metro pedestrian associations, resulting in 2001 with the founding of America Walks and Chris being presented with the Golden Footprints Award for being "the father of pedestrian advocacy in North America"]

1. Introduction

Ottawalk is an association of pedestrians and walkers formed this June, following several meetings at my home of people I felt would be interested in forming such a group.  We have almost 60 paid-up members, sponsor Sunday morning walks about every other week, are applying for charitable status, and are starting a quarterly newsletter.  Ottawalk is the successor to the Ottawa Pedestrians Citizens Committee, formed in 1985, as a special downtown pedestrian-environment study committee by the City of Ottawa and now transforming itself into a permanent city advisory committee.

To our knowledge, there is no other city in North America with organized pedestrian interests, although there has been an explosion of walking clubs.  Why?  Why in Ottawa?  Will we persist and survive?  And, what can be learned by the Ottawa experience?

2. Ottawa

The greater Ottawa area is the fourth largest metropolitan centre in Canada with about 850,000 population, about one-0third the size of Washington, D.C.  What has made us more pedestrian-sensitive?

First, Canadian cities have different histories than from their American counterparts: our central areas never experienced the economic decay; our densities are higher; our reliance on cars is lower, while reliance on transit higher; and fear of street crime and racially-mixed residential areas has been much lower.

Second, our colder climate has forced us to provide more climate-controlled environments, such as Toronto’s and Montreal’s systems.  Ottawa’s Carleton University is also linked underground by tunnels; but our downtown’s plus-15 system is mostly just a dream – one that pedestrians oppose.  Snow removal is provided for busier streets by using miniature plows, althoughy it doesn’t provide the bare surface that stgreet-plowing and salting provides.  There are still many wionter problems to address for pedestrians, though.  Incidentially, the Livable Winter Cities Association was founded in Ottawa.

Third, Ottawa is a national capital.  This provides us with:

*     many offices and only a few factories for more dense employment areas and better utilization of transit;
*    many public green spaces along three rivers and our Rideau Canal, 210,000-acre Gatineau Park that comes within a kilometre of downtown, and a federal greenbelt with several natural protected areas;

*    a population that is above-average in its level of education and therefore active in supporting community activities and being active community participants;

*    as Canada’s second most popular tourist destination, quality walking environments are supported by agencies and businesspeople alike.  Tourist areas traditionally cater to pedestrians since walking is how tourists enjoy their destinations.

Fourth, we have strong regional government – albeit two of them, one for the 11 Ontario municipalities and another for the eight Québec ones.  This means a high-quality, standardized regional road system.  We also have a strong transit system that was name best in North American last year.  It uses innovative busy-on ly transitway technology.

In short, we are a very “walkable” city.  We take advantage of it with many street-oriented festivals, our mid-winter one called “Winterlude,” rivaling Québec City’s older Winter Carnival.  For both of these, a significant number of streets are closed to automobile traffic and free shuttle buses are provided.

3. My Growing Consciousness

I’ve been interested in the pedestrian experience for over 10 years.  Although born in Vancouver, Canada, I spent my adolescence in automobile-conscious Denver.  I spent my college years back east at a school, Oberlin College, that forbade students to own or drive cars.  I used a bicycle on mixed pedestrian-bicycle paths, something that I now disdain.

Soon after graduating, I worked for General Motors as a management trainee.  I couldn’t get excited about my company car, preferring my Honda mo-ped. Two years, later, I joined the Company of Young Canadians, Canada’s version of he U.S.’s VISTA, and organized tenants and youth projects, requiring me to relocate to Ottawa.  The process awakened my concern for society’s powerless and acquainted me with community organizing.

My interest in pedestrian environments began soon after joining the planning department at the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton in 1974 – where I still work – as the community relations officer.  I had to explain regional-scale policies to neighbourhood-0scale people, many of them arguing against policies to improve to the road system because they meant increased motor traffic.

In 1978, during one of my serendipitous “wanderings” of New York City, my wife’s family’s home city, I dropped into the offices of the Urban Design Newsletter.  I talked with the editor who later wrote a piece on my concerns and ideas.  Over the next year, I received – and responded to – letters from almost 20 readers from around the world.
I also: led a successful protest in our office building, successfully reversing rumored plans to permanently close its first-floor inside entrance from our lobby; developed and promoted the idea of an automobile cooperative; and helped form a local lobby group, Transportation Probe.

In 1981, my family and I moved from the suburbs to one of the downtown neighbourhoods.  I felt a great sense of relief from being freed from reliance on the automobile and commuter buses.  The architecture and dense and more mixed development that allow shopping to be done by foot and bike was also an attraction.

4    Organizing Pedestrians in Ottawa

In 1978 and 1979, I made my two attempts to form a pedestrians’ and transit-riders association, first by passing out flyers to fellow bus riders and, a year later, by inviting related groups – seniors citizens’ council, the students’ association at the University of Ottawa located downtown, and a couple of downtown community associations – to name a delegate.  Neither attempt produced much interest.

In the early 1980s, I met Patrick Chen, a personable planner-architect with the City of Ottawa.  He had been developing consciousness within the planning bureaucracy for better design of pedestrian environments.  (He has since developed ground-breaking research techniques for testing proposed buildings in a wind-tunnel using time-lapse photography of walking patterns under different weather conditions, and most recently, using computer-generated models to view proposed developments from street level).  His work has not received the support from the decision-makers that it deserves.

Patrick and I successfully proposed the establishment of a pedestrians’ reference group to assist the project team for the Rideau Area Project, established in 1981-1985 to up-grade the streets adjacent to the site of the Rideau Centre, a new downtown complex that would combine a three-storey shopping centre with over 200 stores, a convention centre, and a new hotel.  The planning team found enough citizens who had attended the initial open house to meet together regularly to share ideas over the next three years.  The experience was successful, primarily on the idea-sharing and consciousness-raising level, although it exerted little influence on the team’s recommendations to the three levels of government sponsoring the project.

In 1984, I helped start two new associations, each of which overlapped with my interests in walking: the Livable Winter Cities Association and the Citizens for Safe Cycling.  I developed a Winter Pedestrians’ Bill or Rights in 1985 at the urging of William Rogers of Minneapolis, the father of the Winter Cities movement.  Today, my involvement is limited to being a liaison on behalf of pedestrians with both groups.

In 1985, the Ottawa Pedestrians Citizens Committee (OPCC) was formed and still operates today.  It was organized by Pat Chen to advise him during the Downtown West Precinct Pedestrian Environment Study, which he coordinated.  The firm of duToit, Allsopp, Hillier, and Associates of Toronto was hired to do an initial study.  The committee, whose terms of reference was broadened by Ottawa Planning Committee to invite it to comment on any city project that impacted pedestrians, prepared a 25-page response to the duToit report as well as briefs on street vending, the revitalization of our Sparks Street Pedestrian Mall and nearby Bank Street Promenade, and the re-design of the downtown section of our unique transitway system.  We had our own chairman and scheduled our own meetings.

In February of this year, I initiated the process to form Ottawalk, following a general consensus of OPCC that an autonomous pedestrians association could provide more clout and continuity to the pedestrians’ cause.  It could also be more pro-active, organizing walks and promoting pedestrian safety.  We would also be interested in the whole region, rather than primarily the downtown area.  My organizing committee quickly decided to hold a public meeting in may to “test the waters.”

Several of us noted that walking was becoming very popular in North America, as reflected by the success of Walking Magazine. Our first decision was that our group would be a home for both those who saw walking as an excellent form of recreation and exercise (“walkers”) as well as those wanting to do something about improving their walking environment (“pedestrians”).

We publicized our first public meeting with a press release and notices stapled to utility poles in the downtown area.  The meeting was held in mid-May in a downtown community centre, attracting about 40 people.  The media coverage before and after the meeting was good.  Everyone who attended eagerly spoke about their interests and concerns and the meeting ended with an enthusiastic vote to take the next step.  The original organizing committee, supplemented by three volunteers, met twice more, developed a draft constitution, including a name, a leadership structure, and a membership system, and organized a second public meeting.

The second meeting, which occurred on June 12th, attracted about the same number of people.  The constitution was provisionally adopted.  Volunteers filled the five executive positions and interested members for two of the three committees – Walking and Safety/Design – met briefly and agreed to a time and place for their first full-length meetings.

Those agreeing to serve on the seven-member board for the first year are: a co-worker who developed an enthusiasm in Volksmarching while living in Europe; an owner of a videotext service company who doesn’t own a car and who watched a close friend break her leg in three places after falling on an ice-slickened sidewalk; a computer programmer from Boston who had taken a year off from work, while her husband is temporarily posted to Ottawa; a marine engineer working with the federal government; and a woman blinded by diabetes who had previous organized a guide-dog user’s group.

In the two months since that meeting, the walking committee has held four Sunday morning walks, and scheduled another seven up to the middle of October, mixing urban and rural venues.  The safety/design committee is still developing its priorities and positions for a small number of issues: bicycles, a better system of responding to pedestrian complaints, pollution, intersection design, and lobbying for the re-activation of the aforementioned Downtown study.  The executive has developed a membership brochure and developed a proposal for sponsorship for local walking-related retailers, and begun to establish liaisons with existing groups and agencies.  We are preparing an application to the federal government for charitable status.
It’s hard to see how much we will grow or how effective we will become, since we are so new.  However, we already miss the benefits of contact with other pedestrians associations and have already discussed the idea of promoting our concerns on a broader scale by possible sponsoring a North American conference for pedestrians and walker groups in 1991. Of course, first, we’ll have to stimulate more such groups to form in other North American cities. [[Dorothea Hass, a Boston planner, was in the audience, chatted with the speaker afterwards.  She soon formed Walk Boston, the first of the U.S. groups, months later.]]

5.    Organized Pedestrians and Improved Walkability

It’s probably premature to talk about the role that might be played by pedestrians associations in improving walkability in North American cities.  However, it is an urgent matter and some speculation is warranted, partly because, as a community relations specialist, I believe I can offer some insights.  I will be interested to hear about the more advanced situation in Europe from my fellow pedestrian speaker from Holland.

Our recent experiences in Ottawa prove that pedestrians and walkers are “organizable.”  Although walking is the form of transportation and physical activity least requiring organization or formality, there are factors that make organizing attractive:

*    There continues to be a current of anti-automobile sentiment in the public-at-large.

*    Walking as a physical activity has gained a great number of adherents, many of them at the strong suggestion of their physician.  Many of these people feel strange unless they walk with others.

*    The walking sector of the highly-sectorized sports-fitness apparel-accessories industry has emerged and is working to raise the consciousness of walkers.

*    Walking as a form of transportation has been discovered by the middle-class who are moving back into older neighbourhoods and now walk to work.  They are incensed about some of the conditions they face, even if they are not new.

*    The walking environment is under significant assault from such people as bicyclists (especially bike couriers), the homeless, prostitution, drug-dealing, etc. that freely occurs in areas that are poorly surveilled.

*    The efforts of older downtown business areas to compete with shopping malls has developed a great deal of interest in – and freed up funds for – improving walking environments.

How could these trends be taken advantage of  to get pedestrians associations into reality?

*    Realize that, although most people who walk do so because of necessity (i.e., are poor, old, young), the leadership of such groups will probably come from the ranks of those who walk by choice.  Although we have many older people as members, our leadership comes from the 30-49 age group.

*    Advocate that recreational and fitness walkers use regular sidewalks, rather than controlled-environments like malls and health clubs.  We need them to experience the streets in order to enlist them as allies and get their much-needed presence where it counts, in order to re-assert ownership of the public spaces.

*    Try to tap into the community associations by reminding them that their goal of reduced traffic through their streets creates better walking conditions while increasing property values.  They should be encouraged to sponsor annual walks of their streets emphasizing points-of-interest, the advantages of walking, and steps they are taking to improve this.  Also use their monthly newsletters and newspapers to public related articles.

Many of you are in a position to help the formation of pedestrians associations.  Should you lend your efforts to help such groups form?  And what kind of help can you offer?

Most of you are professionals.  You will at first feel uncomfortable with the idea of forming or assisting in the formation of pedestrian associations.  I have had to watch out not to cross the boundary of professionalism, myself, as a community relations specialist with a regional municipal agency.  You will wonder if you will be seen as forming booster groups.  Or you will worry whether the priorities of such groups will vary with your own.  You will also feel a certain lack of knowledge of organizing skills.

Your best bet is to simply do as Pat Chen has done in Ottawa and simply invite pedestrians to participate in your studies.  If you feel you cannot get the authority to form a pedestrians’ reference/focus group, you can still hold open houses and begin the process of conversing with typical pedestrians about their walking experiences and perceived needs.  I am a proponent of “informal participation,” in which the professional identifies and conversed with small-r representatives of impacted groups before the writing – and the growth of feelings of defensiveness about –- his policies.

You might think that enough is known about pedestrians already – or that yo will find out more by simply watching them walk, like rats in a maze – but a great deal is gained from talking to pedestrians who have thought about walking; and those who haven’t will begin thinking about it.

You are here because you believe not only that pedestrians need a better environment, but that by providing it, many more people are likely to walk.  And you know that a city where more people walk is one that is leaner and safer, has fitter citizens, and doesn’t disenfranchise many of its citizens from the transportation amenities due to extremes in age, a lack of income, or disabilities.

A pedestrians’ association in your city would provide support for these aims.  It would lobby for increased expenditures for the construction and maintenance of sidewalks and trails.  It would press for more staff to review all development and transportation proposals from the walker’s perspective.
Recently a local developer, a finalist in a major competition to redevelop the last vacant downtown block, asked for comments from the aforementioned OPCC for comments.  Its final bid, which reflected many of the concerns raised by us, won the competition.  Now the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton – my employer, incidentally – is considering establishing an advisory committee for the various transportation “customers.”

6.    Some Insights on Pedestrians and Improved Walkability

Walking is informal; moving in motorized vehicles is formal.  Unlike any other travel mode, walking is part of every trip we make. Walking requires no special equipment or licensing.  Pedestrians require no signs, painted lines, or traffic signals.  Because of this, no one is denied access to walking areas, unless they choose to bring a bike or car with them, even if they have a wheelchair or with a white cane.

Formal modes, on the other hand, require great resources, many rules, and strict enforcement.  They exclude many members of society, and extract heavy penalties.  When walkers “bump” into each other, it is a social occasion; when vehicles do so, it’s time to call the police and insurance companies.

For these reasons, our sidewalks are often forgotten by public authorities.  They don’t develop potholes or require enforcement.  They are ownerless.  As a result, society has come to see sidewalks as simply a buffer or DMZ between the economic and personal world one side of them and the formal transportation world on the other.  Those denied membership in either world – the unemployed and homeless, the outlaws (prostitutes and drug dealers), harassed bicyclists, and the car-poor and very young and very old – populate the sidewalks.  One doesn’t stroll down the sidewalk humming Irving Berlin tunes anymore; one instead, watches warily for threats from all sides and travels only during certain hours.  Panhandlers, pushers, peddlers, and prostitutes are now dominating our sidewalks.

“Walkability” is the best word to describe one of the most important qualities of the livable city, since they can only be enjoyed while walking.  It is also the common element for tourism: destinations and transportation terminals.

Walkers are the most vulnerable to the vagaries of our environment and transportation system, sustaining injuries and deaths from a momentary lapse of judgment or a driver’s distraction, while themselves posing no threat to other users.

To rehabilitate our walking spaces, we need to re-establish our collective stewardship and ownership.  We have to 1) invest in better-designed edges and surfaces, 2) promote more street-oriented activities, and 3) re-think our personal values and laws that push our social problems onto the sidewalks.

Based on my experience and those of other pedestrians in Ottawa, here are my major concerns and some solutions to deal with them.  Compare them with your own list.

A.    Balance Transportation:

It is too easy for a group of pedestrians to become anti-automobile, anti-truck, and anti-bicycle.  But such sentiments have historically proven to be rash and unrealistic.  Our goal must be a balanced transportation system, with a range of modes that complement each other and each are supportive of a high quality of life in the city.,

B.    The Intersection

The intersection is a jumble of conflicting movements and distractions at corners.  Each vehicle-vehicle intersection is actually four pedestrian-pedestrian intersections and eight pedestrian-vehicle intersections.  The traffic light does not give sufficient direction.

I would like to see intersections redesigned using “neckdowns” that make the roadway narrower at intersections, even in the central area.  Ottawa already uses these on local streets in older neighbourhoods at intersections with regional roads.  At signalized intersections, right-turn conflicts with pedestrians could be avoided by using three- or four-phase lights with one or two exclusive pedestrian cycles.  I remember this phasing in downtown Denver as a child.

Such a scheme would: a) provide a segregated “staging are” for waiting pedestrians, so they don’t block pedestrians moving at right angles to them, b) allow for better sight triangles, c) cause approaching vehicular traffic to slow down more, d) reduce pedestrian crossing times (reducing conflicts with turning cars and pedestrian’s exposure to risk), and e) provide more curb parking and stopping while banning either close to corners.  And with three- or four-phase lights that provide pedestrians their own phases, turn lanes would be made unnecessary.

C.    Edges and Surfaces:

The walking surface has three major problems: 1) unnecessary changes in grade (dips for driveways and curbs at corners), 2) slippery surfaces when it is raining or freezing, and 3) standing water caused by poor drainage sloping and in water, poor snow clearing.  Further, the edges of sidewalks suffer from poorly maintained building surfaces (e.g., broken tiles, splattered mud, doors that open into the flow) and poorly located and designed street furniture, sign poles, and shapes, and other items.

I propose that sidewalks should be constructed so as to continue level through driveways and intersections and the road surface should be sloped where they meet.  This will provide visual difference to drivers and the mild bump will cause them to slow down where safety is so important.  This would also remove the need to build ramps for wheelchair users. The edges problem will require better design standards and enforcement.

D.    The Bicycle:

The bicycle is an important problem not only because bicycle parking, which occurs mostly on sidewalks, is a problem to pedestrians, but cyclists are increasingly riding on sidewalks because they feel vulnerable on the roadways or are impatient with one-way streets and other rules of the road.  Also the cyclists presence on the recreation paths causes conflicts with walkers.

What can be done?  First, bicycles and cyclists should be licensed and required to carry insurance, since they can cause retail streets, and office buildings: secure, long-term parking in out-of-the-way locations and short-term parking in alcoves, out of the pedestrians’ way (other parking should be illegal).  Third, the design of bikes should be re-examined.  Thin tires, 10-12-15-18-speed gears, wide handlebars, and tall “male” frames are all impractical in cities.  Fourth, on streets with more than one lane in each direction, the existing curb lane should be widened at the expense of the width of the non-curb lanes, so that there is a large area for cyclists, as is being done in Ottawa. [In the long run, I propose that roads in cities should be re-designed for approximately 20 km/h to allow cyclists to ride with the car traffic, rather than beside it.]

7.    Immediate Actions to be Undertaken

1.    An international competition for the designation of “Most Walkable City,” based on research – yet to be conducted – as to what constitutes “walkability.”

2.    All pedestrian deaths should be investigated, and inquests held where contributory circumstances are not clear or need public airing.  Inquests today are automatic for deaths on common carriers or on job sites, but rarely where a death occurs on streets and sidewalks.

3.    A three-year grant to establish a North American clearinghouse to organize pedestrians associations, conduct research for a popular book on pedestrian safety and the design of public spaces (including roads), and organize annual conferences.  Boulder would be a natural location for this.

[Acknowledgments: To fellow Ottawa pedestrians Tony Chinery, Jim Feeley, and Patrick Chen for their review of a previous draft of this paper.]

2 Responses to “Pedestrian Associations and Walkability (1988)”

  1. Three Challenges to Walkability in Ottawa’s Uptown Rideau Neighbourhood | The Grid | Global Site Plans Says:

    […] Bradshaw was organizing pedestrian associations and advocating for car-sharing programs. His local Ottawalk group was the first of its kind in North America, and helped bring walking culture from the […]

  2. JanesWalkOtt: Uptown Rideau | yowLAB Says:

    […] Bradshaw was organizing pedestrian associations and advocating for car-sharing programs. His local Ottawalk group was the first of its kind in North America, and helped bring walking culture from the […]

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