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?

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  1. As someone who walks up and down Queen Street regularly, I’d actually quite like to see “fast walker” separation lanes.
    I don’t appreciate the milling crowds of five-abreast yokels walking at a speed slightly slower than glacial retreat.

    1. Just avoid Queen Street. It is a game I have been playing for years, although Victoria Street Countdown ruined an excellent alternate route. Queen Street is a shadowy ditch with generic shops. But if you like it, enjoy it! Try zigzagging a little…

    2. Walk on the west side, its better.

      On a related note I think one of the best things about the LRT scheme is bigger footpaths on Queen.

      1. The west side does avoid the desire line out of Britomart and all of those faux charity irritants. It’s a bit of an annoying zig-zag given until recently I was going from Britomart to AUT, but I seem to more regularly be arriving on the NEX for the same destination, so it’s not as bad.

        Personally I’d rather take Albert St almost all the way up, but there is a greater good making that pretty pointless right now.

    1. I am sort of amazed at this video, in that there seem to be lots of people just standing around formlessly in the middle of the road. Amazed also that the death toll of those people wasn’t higher… Several close calls between horse, cart, tram, car and pedestrian, even in this one single video. Must have been daily slaughter as the Model T gave way to faster cars…

      1. The death toll was very high, that’s the key difference. It all looks a bit utopian but fact is it was a deadly arrangement. At the time both trolleys and autos were very dangerous.

        Oh and it’s a cable car rather than a tram, you can see the slot for the rope in between the tracks. That might explain why it doesn’t completely stop, they’d release the cable and coast then grab the cable again.

        1. Yes, the tolerance to death and injury would have been higher back then, but that SF video is wonderful to watch, especially with all the sounds, thanks for finding this and posting Peter!

  2. I think that in the early fifties, there was a white line down the centre of the Queen Street footpaths to which pedestrians generally kept to the left of. This line seemed to very satisfactorily cater for the differing walking speeds of pedestrians without overly regimenting them.

  3. I passed a couple of days in Amsterdam in June, and Centraal is what public transport is all about. So busy, yet never chaotic. Like Britomart will be when it grows up.

  4. Relates also to Charles Marohn’s ‘stroad’ idea. Roads – where we want to get stuff moving quickly from A-B with no side accesses, and streets where there is lots of coming and going in a low speed environment. He calls a ‘Stroad’ the terrible combination of both – which doesn’t function for either purpose …the ‘Futon of transportation options’.

  5. With regard to pedestrians moving at pedestrian-speeds, one thing that has long interested me is the ability of 15,000 people arriving at Wellington Station by train every a.m. peak, to disperse innocuously from this nodal point in continuous streams down various streets. No regulation, no signals (other than where they must cross motor-traffic), in fact no special provision at all except for footpaths and a modicum of shelter against inclement weather.

    This phenomenon first drew my attention when debating with others on what would be the best way to extend Wellington’s rail system beyond its current dead-end dead-end point. The popular ideas is trams down the “Golden Mile”, but my argument against this is that if you do the maths, you find that to accommodate the likely peak passenger-flows in trams would seriously conflict with the city’s aim to increase the pedestrian amenity of this route. Currently, only a small fraction of those 15,000 rail-arrivals transfer to bus and yet the Golden Mile is already overloaded with buses in the peak.

    What this little exercise highlights is the sheer efficiency of the walking mode to move large numbers of people with minimal impact, cost or danger. Were that same number to be transported by any motorised mode then a fairly large-scale operation would be required with all the regulation and mitigation that would be needed to impose it on the city’s fabric.

    My conclusion by the way is that the only acceptable way of extending a major heavy rail artery with its own right-of-way, is by extending the heavy rail artery on its own right of way. Like Auckland is doing with its CRL. Trams on the Golden Mile would be great, but not for the function of extending the regional rail service.

    1. Dave B, as a fellow Wellingtonian, I tend to agree, but the follow-on question is therefore how, and where? If you are saying that trams down the Golden Mile at ground level aren’t the right idea, and trains at ground level aren’t either, then the city is left with only two options – underground, or overground, i.e. subway or elevated rail. An aerial route would tend to be an awkward, heavy, ugly thing, so presumably a subway would have to be dug – effectively below sea level (Lambton Quay footpath being only 2.5m above AMSL), and station stops built underground. Then you’ve still got the pinch points at the junction with Willis and then Manners to deal with, where you couldn’t turn a train on that radius.

      It all gets just too hard, and certainly too expensive, which leads us back to trams or buses as the only feasible answer…

      1. Guy, I would advocate taking over the Waterfront Route (Waterloo / Customhouse / Jervois quays) as a rail corridor. Rail would be dug down to whatever depth is economically feasible, and if this is only 0.5 metre then so be it. The corridor would then be covered over to form a sort of landscaped, ‘linear mound’ along this route, to a first stop alongside Frank Kitts Park and right next to Civic square. I believe this section with a two-platform station could be got operating with 20tph even if it went no further, and would bring a further 1Km of the city within reach of rail. Extending beyond there would require some more serious tunnelling but hopefully by then the concept of extending rail would have proved itself and convinced the sceptics.

        I am convinced it is do-able and by far the best option for the city’s future transport needs. Just needs more people to adopt the attitude, ‘Right! How are we going to do this?’, rather than ‘Nah, it can’t be done.’

        1. You’d want at least a third track, if not two island platforms with four tracks at your terminus. Maybe a trailing turn back might work too.

          Otherwise you’d be looking at razor thing turnaround times with practically no recovery time. Fine when everything is working perfectly but the second one thing goes wrong you’re stuffed for the rest of the day.

          One question though, how do you get the tracks out of the existing station and into the street corridor, where do the through platforms end up. Something on the eastern side where the taxis are I guess?

          1. Modelled at 4-minute turnaround which should be enough to change-ends. Two tracks plus a scissor would allow this. Recovery time would be minimal, meaning that this stop would be treated as a ‘mid-journey’ station for timetabling purposes, not a terminus with layover. In this sense it would be no different from how Britomart will behave once the CRL is active. Layovers will occur at the outer termini (where they should be!).

            The through platforms at the present station would go on the Eastern side where a large car-park currently is. They would be at a slight angle to the existing platforms, as the alignment veers eastwards to join the present road route.
            . . . .That is, provided no chump builds anything more in the way of this. There is currently zero protection against this happening as there is currently zero official plan for doing anything further with rail and zero official vision for any new PT other than some vague BRT scheme.

            Such is the leadership we are currently stuck with..

    2. I would have thought light rail down Customhouse Quay and past Te Papa would be the way to go. It does mean a couple of block walking to the golden mile but the ability to have the LR vehicles travel much closer to 50kph would counter this and also help with the through flow to the southern suburbs. Would be interested in your thoughts on this.

      I’ve always found the golden mile the most frustratingly slow stretch of public transport in the country. 15 mins from the airport to Courtenay Place in the bus then another 15 mins to just to get to the railway station!

      1. Hi Jezza. Yes, I believe the Waterfront route is a much better bet for rapid transit, be it express bus, light rail, or heavy rail (as I’ve outlined above). As you say, the Golden Mile is just too darn slow for any sort of fast, cross-city service, and trying to make it the main PT artery seriously conflicts with aspirations to make it more pedestrian-friendly. I know that trams in pedestrian areas can work well, but not at the sort of capacities and speeds which an extension to our heavy rail system could warrant, given that Wellington’s peak-hour patronage is disproportionately high for a city of its size! The adage applies, that if a transit service is to be rapid it must be free from pedestrians and traffic. If it is to be safe around pedestrians and traffic then it won’t be rapid.

        As a precursor to a rail extension, I would be very interested to see an express bus service instigated, to start from a new interchange at Platform 9 of the railway station (as far as possible to connect with every train), and to run limited-stop from there along the likely route of a rail extension to Courtenay, Newtown, Kilbirnie, Airport. This would not replace buses along the ‘Slowdown Mile’, but it would provide a better alternative for the currently-stifled cross-city demand. Could yield some very interesting data about a potential PT demand that our current planners and politicians don’t think exists. Their only answer is to relegate PT forever to the Golden Mile and meanwhile build ‘lots moar roads’.

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