Taming the traffic: a Danish recipe for better cities

One way of cutting down on motor vehicle emissions is to make it more pleasant to visit the city without your car close at hand. Enter Jan Gehl, whose mission is liveable cities. [2 March 2010 | Peter Boyer]

When Jan Gehl was a green young architect finding his feet in Copenhagen in the early 1960s, his home town had a few things in common with our own Hobart. They both sat on a harbour, with fresh salty breezes, low-profile buildings — and lots of cars.

With the cars came a certain mindset, shared by traffic engineers and motorists alike, which said that streets belonged to them. As Prof Gehl puts it, if you were a pedestrian you had to apply for permission to set your foot on the sacred tarmac. If you were a cyclist you just took your chances.

Jan Gehl decided he didn’t much care for the kind of city Copenhagen was turning into. Far from a pleasant, friendly place, its streets were full of metal (cars, trucks, buses) that forced people indoors as quickly as possible. People accepted that the car, virtually an extension of the human body, wasn’t going away any time soon.

With advice from his wife, a psychologist, he thought hard about how people might get more pleasure from being in their city centre. He liked the idea of outdoor dining, but Copenhagen folk had always thought it was too cold a place for that, so they kept their social life indoors, leaving the outdoors to the all-conquering car.

Prof Gehl got to know the city’s traffic engineer, a thoroughly eccentric cello-playing individual who, astonishingly, saw his job as keeping cars out of the city. With encouragement from Gehl, he embarked on a multi-year campaign of attrition against the motor car.

“Our traffic engineer said that if you can’t park you can’t drive,” Prof Gehl told an audience of 500 in the inaugural “Hobart Talks” lecture at the University of Tasmania last week. So the engineer’s answer to traffic congestion was to reduce both parking spaces and the number of available lanes.

“The engineer said that if you do it slowly, no-one will notice, so each year he removed a few parking spaces here and there, and every now and then closed off a lane of traffic.”

Over time, Copenhagen administrators came to appreciate how the space that had been taken from the cars quickly filled with people, walking or on bicycles. With growing enthusiasm, they approved the closing of more and more spaces to motor traffic, employing Gehl to monitor car, bicycle and foot traffic and transform the new spaces into venues for dining and socialising.

Copenhagen’s main street, Strøget, became a car-free zone — Europe’s longest pedestrian mall — as the city adjusted to a regime in which people ruled. Pedestrians were given maximum time to cross car lanes while cars had to wait longer behind red lights. Bicycles also took priority over cars. With bike lanes on the kerb side of parked cars, and connected to each other, cyclists could transit the city while having only minimal contact with motor traffic.

It wasn’t without critics. Prof Gehl recalled one business owner complaining that business had dropped because of lost parking spaces near his shop. But armed with the Gehl team’s traffic statistics, the mayor was able to tell the complainant that foot traffic had doubled in the vicinity of his shop over the period, which left the business itself as the likely culprit.

So what was happening in Hobart while all this was going on? Well, our city fathers stopped the hydro-powered tram and trolley buses in the 1960s because they got in the way of cars. Cyclists, who’d been plentiful earlier in the century, were squeezed out as motor traffic took over.

Which is where we are today, except for sporadic development of facilities for cyclists and pedestrians in the form of some valuable but unconnected bike tracks and lanes, a well-used mall, more pedestrian space near shops, and some new walking tracks out of town.

That suggests we do understand the need to cut our urban traffic monster down to size, yet we continue to serve it by putting resources into more city parking spaces and maintaining arterial roads through the city centre. Something’s not right.

Such imponderables led Hobart City Council and the University of Tasmania to take on Prof Gehl. With a CV that includes major makeovers to Melbourne, London and New York, he’s now started a year-long central Hobart project to help the council achieve its 2025 goal to develop the best possible city for residents and visitors.

Now comes the hard part. The Gehl study will focus on the CBD, addressing other traffic issues only as they relate directly to the city centre. But Hobart’s traffic problems are much wider than this. Keeping cars out of the CBD will need issues elsewhere to be addressed which will need support from a higher level of government.

The biggest problem is that the stream of traffic along the two major streets that separate the city from its waterfront — Macquarie and Davey — can’t be avoided because these are the only connections between southern suburbs and the northern and eastern parts of greater Hobart.

It will take expensive infrastructure to change this, such as a costly new route through the city’s west and north, or a significant cut in car usage, perhaps resulting from carbon mitigation measures, or peak oil. While the cars remain in such numbers, these streets can never realise their great potential as public open space.

Other significant traffic issues are Hobart’s cycle-unfriendly topography (which suggests we need to consider powered pedal cycles as a legitimate transport option), traffic congestion on the Tasman Bridge, and the question of what might be done to increase water transport options. While none of these may be directly relevant to Prof Gehl’s CBD study, ignoring them will pose the risk of his whole vision being rejected as impracticable.

That would be a pity. I confess to being won over by this 73-year-old Nordic warrior of engaging charm and gentle humour. May his insight and wisdom help us over the hump.

• On 11 March, Gehl Architects partner Lars Gemzøe will open a discussion on Launceston’s inner city, at 6.00 pm at The Tramshed, Inveresk. He will be introduced by the Mayor of Launceston, Albert Van Zetten.

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