As soon as you arrive to a new city, you immediately begin to compare it to home. After moving to London three years ago, this has for the most part led me to conclude that there is no better city to live than Melbourne. In spite of this, there is one aspect of life in London that I will surely miss the most, and that is the joy of jaywalking.
Unlike Australia and the United States, in the U.K. there is no such offence as jaywalking. Despite such legislation, in 2011 the U.K. had half the rate of pedestrian deaths than the US. Additionally, in the five-year period between 2007 and 2011 the City of Melbourne reported 15 pedestrian fatalities. So too, a large percentage of pedestrians injured are over 70 years of age, children or intoxicated. Statistics on pedestrians injured or killed whilst jaywalking seem impossible to obtain. So if the collective shame we direct towards jaywalkers is not rooted in statistics, where does it come from? More importantly, what effect is it having on the way Melbourne’s streets are conceived?
Jaywalking first attracted negative connotations in the United States of the 1920s. As cars were introduced into cities in increasing numbers, the automobile industry began a campaign to reeducate pedestrians in order to accommodate their new vehicles. Jays were portrayed as country hicks who were old fashioned and had yet to accustom themselves to the new era. The campaign to deride jaywalkers was quickly absorbed into the common mentality. While the earliest traffic accidents blamed the driver for responsibility, by 1924 newspapers reported the responsibility of the pedestrian.
Regulation against jaywalking can be seen as an attempt to align the behaviour of urban life more closely to the principles of modernist city planning. During the earliest decades of the 20th century, modernists posited the street as purely infrastructural space and that only through the functional differentiation of commuters could the city achieve an efficiency befitting modernity. By the mid century, Jane Jacobs who regarded the street instead as a space of contact for people and advocated the revival of a somewhat nostalgic, village atmosphere led an opposing stance. Thus the debate on the street continued, and for the last century has been largely defined by two opposing views: streets-for-people versus highways-for-cars.
The approach to street design in Melbourne seems resolutely stuck in this dichotomy. Even in the most ambitious plans, a street is considered either the exclusive domain of cars or, a pedestrian zone completely closed to traffic. Bourke Street Mall and most recently Swanston Street have been closed to traffic in the post-Jacobs pursuit to make streets more people friendly. However, in part due to our collective fear of jaywalking, there seems an impossibility of considering the street in any other way. Instead, and before we turn Elizabeth Street into a water park, there may be another option to consider.
A project that has managed to move beyond these two polarities is the redesign for Exhibition Road in South Kensington, London, which was completed in 2011 by Dixon Jones. At a length of 800 meters, Exhibition Road provides access to some of London’s major cultural institutions including the Victoria and Albert Museum and Royal Albert Hall. The road’s design follows the concept of ‘shared space’, first introduced by the Dutch traffic engineer Hans Monderman. Monderman critiqued the prevailing segregation of pedestrians and traffic and instead saw ambiguity as the instigator for more cautious road users. To this end, Exhibition road has been cleared of line markings, barricades, and kerbs. The entire ground surface has been paved with a uniform road level and materiality. On Exhibition Road walking and driving are not seen as incompatible, rather, pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists all occupy the same surface. There is still a subtle differentiation of zones, in place of a kerb sits a flush drainage channel, so too, the centre of the street is marked by a row of street lights in an area which also accommodates on-street parking.
Photo courtesy Charlotte Gilhooly via Flickr.
Despite being host to 11 million visitors per year, the experience of the street is one of overwhelming calm. Traffic has been removed of its hostility and instead appears as a form of mutually understood urban choreography. Now, four years after its completion, the street is generally understood to be a positive change overall.
In looking to Exhibition Road as a case study we should remember that it is just that, one case. Far from an overall solution to the city, if we are to learn from modernist model, it is that any sweeping answer to the question of the street is far from conclusive. In particular, as we become more open to alternate forms of urban design, we seem at risk of accepting the mantras promised by the few urban gurus who present answers to more ‘liveable’ city streets. Such promises can only evoke skepticism, as design in any form cannot promise a particular outcome, at best it can allow for, or reduce the possibility of certain types of actions.
A common understanding in which crossing the street at any point is impossible removes such behaviour from action, but also from the discussion. Ultimately, there would be little chance of jaywalking being deregulated in Australia, but this is not to say that a more grey approach to pedestrians in the city is not possible. Even in London, a city that allows jaywalking, the discussion to redevelop Exhibition Road took place over 18 years and when consensus was met, the project was development incrementally. There are many other examples that adopt a middle way for traffic zoning, implemented over time, and we can only hope that Melbourne too may accommodate such experiments.
Words: Kate Finning