In order to succeed in transforming future conditions for pedestrians, it is necessary to understand how different cities have addressed the problem. My recent book is an in-depth study of concepts, practice, successes and failures in the US and mostly Northern European countries but my new project is studying walking in Southern European and South American cities and the results are different.
In contrast to my recent book ‘The Pedestrian and the City’(2015), the new project is concentrating on countries where relatively little is known about walking, especially in key cities in Southern Europe (Spain, Portugal, Italy, Croatia) but also in selected South American cities. It also include familiar cities which have been able to increase or keep their walking share, such as Paris, Grenoble, Lyon and Strasbourg in France, Basel and Zurich in Switzerland and Vienna in Austria. Other aspects which have not been discussed in the previous book are the history of sidewalks or the issues of upper level walkways. Some outstanding examples of sidewalk design will also be presented. It may not be a coincidence that in cities that still have a high level of walking the sidewalks are of good quality and high artistic value.
The research so far shows in most Spanish cities but also in some French, Italian, Croatian, Swiss and Austrian cities a completely different story to that experienced in the countries I had studied (Germany, UK, Denmark, the US and Canada). The research in my book showed that the walking share shrank in all these countries over the last 40 to 50 years. Even in very ‘green’ cities such as Freiburg walking declined by about the same dimension as the national trend in Germany although it was more than compensated by a rise in the cycle and transit share. This trend is similar in Cologne (Germany) London (UK) Boulder (Colorado) and Washington DC, to mention only a few cities. Though car commuting dropped significantly, this did not add to more walking trips.
Spain shows a different pattern. In 12 major Spanish cities walking is still close to 50%. The second biggest Spanish city Barcelona (1.5 million) has increased walking from 27% in 2005 to 48% in 2013. Bilbao, a city of 354,000 inhabitants, still had a walking share of 60% in 2007 and in Leon, a smaller city (132,000 inhabitants) over 60% of all trips were carried out on foot in 2009. The capital of the Basque region (Vitoria) raised its share of walking from 50% to 54% but also cycling and public transport grew between 2006 and 2014. This difference fosters a number of very important and interesting questions.
a) Is the walking culture fundamentally different in Southern European cities than in central Europe and in North America? I carried out a small study in Split, the second biggest city in Croatia (176,000 population) on a big square. One could experience the change and level of walking through the day. The most dramatic difference was before lunch time and sunset. Whereas the number of pedestrians in the late morning was easily countable, that became impossible by sunset as the number had increased so dramatically. Although one can experience something similar on the river promenade in Savannah, the difference in the number of pedestrians is stunning in such a small city as Split.
b) Are there effective policies in place to promote walking and reduce car trips?
c) Are the population densities different compared to the cities I already studied ?
d) Even more important, are the distances in these successful cities shorter and still walkable between housing and jobs, shops and other services?
e) Is the difference simply connected to economically weaker performance compared to the countries I studied in the past?
f) What are the relationships between car ownership levels, cycling and public transport shares?
g) Are there methodological differences in the way walking shares are estimated?
There is a whole range of factors which are important to shed light on why walking is growing in some cities and not in others. If one studies successful walking cities in detail it may well provide a key to developing more powerful walking policies in the future. However, it could also be that cities with a high level of walking today may go the same way as all the other countries I studied and it is simply a matter of time.