How things change… or don’t change.
I recently ran across two videos that illustrate humans’ ability to navigate complex urban environments with a mix of people on the street.
The first video is from the dawn of the motor vehicle age: San Francisco in 1906. It’s a 12-minute long journey down Market Street, shot from the front of a tram. Throughout the video, you can see (and hear) the extraordinary range of uses on the street: horse-pulled carts and carriages; early cars veering suddenly out in front of the tram; young men on bicycles; men in suits and women in long dresses crossing the street, standing around, moving easily through the traffic.
There are no traffic lights or painted lanes. Nobody is controlling this chaos. But everyone is moving at a human speed – at a pace where it’s possible to adjust to unexpected circumstances. The tram periodically slows down to take on passengers – not quite stopping, but easing its pace for a moment to allow people to step up. Boys occasionally dash out in front of the tram to demonstrate their pace.
The second video is a three-minute timelapse video of Amsterdam’s Central Station, at the point at which the city’s ferries are disgorging their passengers. (Central Station also accommodates buses and trains.) There are no cars in the station, but people on bikes, motor scooters, and foot travel through the space in all directions.
Once again, it’s possible to perceive spontaneous order out of the travel chaos. People speed up and the slow down when they get to knots of cross-traffic; people on bikes mingle comfortably with people on foot; and the whole thing generally proceeds safely and conveniently. People who want to cycle straight through the station can do so – provided that they keep an eye out and time their approach to avoid running into cross-traffic. There are occasional bottlenecks – it’s hard for fifty people to get on a ferry when one hundred are getting off – but the system works with admirable efficiency.
What is the point of these videos?
In my view, they demonstrate that humans are reasonably intelligent. We can deal with complexity, provided that we’re given time and space to assimilate it. A lot of contemporary traffic planning seems to assume that we are a bit dim – i.e. that if people in cars aren’t allowed to travel as fast as possible with as few potential interruptions as possible, then terrible things will happen.
When streets are heavily trafficked by cars, there’s definitely a case for separated lanes for buses (which can move more people per lane than cars, even if they’re not chocka) and bikes (which are vulnerable to injury when in mixed traffic). And when you want the cars (or buses) to move fast, then yeah, perhaps keep the pedestrians away. But when the mix of modes is more evenly distributed, then it’s sometimes better to keep things at a human speed and let people negotiate their path through the space.
What do you think of these videos?