A friend recently asked me what I most enjoyed about living in Portugal compared to the US. One of my answers (besides “the FOOD!”) was that I love the way the towns are laid out, the fact that everything I need is within walking distance, and most of all, the fact that I can walk. I can cross the main street through town without taking my life in my hands, and it doesn’t require waiting five minutes for a crosswalk light.
In the US, the most common answer to the question in this post’s headline — whether drivers will admit it or not — is “If I had my way they wouldn’t be crossing the road at all.” US drivers consider pedestrians to be obstacles, and the only thing worse than pedestrians are cyclists.
Here in Loulé, the main road through town is one lane each direction, with a central pedestrian walkway that is wider than either driving lane. Traffic moves slowly but steadily, without a single traffic signal from one end of the boulevard to the other. It’s an inviting space, full of pedestrians and people actually hanging out in the center, which has benches and a couple of little cafés. Crossing the road rarely takes more than a few seconds and can be done almost anywhere.
By contrast, the main street through my old Oregon hometown — which has half the population of Loulé — is a four-lane highway with a center turn lane. The only safe places to cross are at intersections with traffic signals, which are at least half a kilometer apart and usually much more. The “sidewalks” are really a series of driveways and parking lot entrances, interrupted by occasional stretches of level cement. It’s a desert for pedestrians, and the idea of walking to do your errands is laughable.
Having lived in the two extremes of traffic management, I was fascinated by the experience of an English town named Poynton (a bit southeast of Manchester), which was faced with a traffic-related economic problem. The town was divided in half by a major highway, with two lanes in each direction, and its intersection with a second highway was a pedestrian nightmare. Shops in the area were suffering because of the lack of foot traffic — nobody wanted to go there. In addition, the main highway was due for repairs and new traffic signals, so some works would have to be done.
The town government took this opportunity to have a big rethink on how that highway and intersection could operate, and the winning idea was a radical one: Reduce the approaches to one lane each direction, strip out the traffic signals and crosswalks, remove the curbs, and create a figure-eight shared space between automobiles, pedestrians, and cyclists. It sounds like a recipe for disaster. But a funny thing happens when you put drivers in a one-lane road and take away their traffic signals: they slow down, and look.
This 15-minute documentary of the process is fascinating. In the beginning, planning officials are interviewed at the original intersection, as cars whiz by behind them and delivery trucks labor to manage the right-angle turn. By the end, we watch the new intersection in action…and the contrast is phenomenal. Poynton is no longer divided, traffic is flowing smoothly, and the space really is shared.
It’s counterintuitive, but it works.