Streets Are Like Sentences, Or, Making Walking Less Annoying

Walkability is about more than safe, interesting streets lined with potential destinations — though those things are extremely important. It’s also about eliminating the little pressure points that annoy people and make them wish they weren’t walking in the first place. In other words, much like sentences, streets need to be “edited” not just for big things but for the little problems as well.

I’ll try to touch on various little pedestrian problems in the future, but for now note the cross walk buttons in the picture below. For some reason, one of them has been placed in an illogical and difficult-to-find spot.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City.

A crosswalk in Salt Lake City, looking west.

In the picture above, the green arrow points to the East-West crosswalk.

But bafflingly, the button to trigger the signal for that crosswalk is located on the poll near the North-South crosswalk. It’s marked by the red arrow and is a good 20 feet from the crosswalk it serves.

The button may have been installed on that distant post to save money — though Provo has installed separate posts in some places that’s clearly more expensive — but that still doesn’t explain why it faces North, away from the correct crosswalk.

The same intersection, looking north.

The same intersection, looking north.

The picture above further illustrates the problem: one crosswalk button, marked by the red arrow, is easy to find. The other button, however, is on the other side of the pole (north) and almost as far from the crosswalk it serves — marked by a green arrow — as it can be. Just putting it on the side of the pole facing the photo (south) would have been a huge improvement.

These sorts of things are like typos; people don’t stop moving when they hit them but they do momentarily slow down. And the problem is particularly bad in Utah, where large streets create huge street corners; when I walked up to this intersection it took me at least three times as long to find the button as it would have at a better-designed spot. It was a brief pressure point that didn’t need to exist.

People won’t give up walking as a result of little errors like this. But they will be annoyed, if only subtly. And that’s unfortunate because the emotional memory they’ll have from walking will be negative.

The point is that a good street should be like most forms of good writing: it should blend into the background and let the user flow from one point to the next. Exceptional beauty can stand out, but both writing and city design fail when the mechanics become clunky and slow or when they call too much attention to themselves.

Finally, note how in these pictures there aren’t actually many people on the street; that’s the best evidence of all that the design of this street isn’t working. With better “editing,” streets like these should become more lively and pleasurable to use.


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Filed under commuting, Downtown

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