Walk This Way

The pedestrian is the human heart of the city, and his movement is the strongest possible expression of the link between the environment and the community.

"Pedestrians comprise the larger part of humanity. More than that; its better part," write Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov at the opening of their 1931 satirical work, "The Little Golden Calf" (translated by Anne O. Fisher, Russian Life Books ).

"Pedestrians created the world. It is they who built cities, erected multistory buildings, laid sewage systems and water pipes, paved the streets and illuminated them with electric lights. It was they who spread culture all over the world ... cast bridges across rivers, deciphered Egyptian hieroglyphics, destroyed the slave trade and determined that 114 tasty, nutritious dishes can be made from the soybean.

"And then, when everything was ready, when our native planet had assumed a relatively well-appointed mien, motorists appeared.

"It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But somehow, motorists completely forgot about that. They began to run over the clever, meek pedestrians. The streets, created by pedestrians, were totally taken over by motorists. Roads grew twice as wide, while sidewalks narrowed down to the width of a cigar band. Pedestrians began to start flattening themselves against the walls of buildings in alarm.

"Pedestrians lead martyrs' lives in the big city, where a sort of transnational ghetto has been created for them. They are allowed to cross only at crosswalks - in other words, only at the precise place where the traffic is heaviest and where the thread by which the pedestrian's life usually hangs is easiest to break."

Ilf and Petrov hit it on the nose when they described, with joyful sarcasm, the degeneration of the urban structure and the undermining of the pedestrian's status. Over the past decade, however, a new urban planning discourse has emerged, whose purpose is to return the pedestrian to the public space.

Cities such as London, Copenhagen and Barcelona have started to make changes, with far-reaching consequences, developing spaces that favor pedestrians. As Kirk Johnson from The New York Times reported a fortnight ago, residents of Denver, Colorado, have started to try reviving a walking culture in their city. Residents have started to represent the interests of pedestrians to city planners, and work to increase awareness of walking's advantages.

Walking, of course, is considered a vulnerable and slow mode of transportation. But pedestrian don't pollute, don't consume fuel and don't take up parking spaces. Walking has health, environmental, social and economic benefits.

In Israel, however, pedestrians are still seen as a nuisance; an obstacle getting in the way of cars. Israel has one of the highest rates of pedestrians hurt in road accidents. Israeli society still considers car ownership and use a sign of success and of a certain social standing, while walking is identified with poverty and backwardness. According to estimates, around a tenth of all urban journeys of less than a kilometer are made by private car.

Despite that, the question of the pedestrians' place in the urban scheme has also started to be asked, fashionably late, in Israel.

Planners and city officials still don't perceive public spaces from a pedestrian's perspective: the need for clean, well-lit streets with wide sidewalks that are in good condition, shaded and free of obstacles. There still need to be pedestrian malls built in downtown areas, and crosswalks and traffic lights planned that give pedestrians priority.

The street is not just a route for cars, and walking is not an old-fashioned mode of transportation. The pedestrian is the human heart of the city, and his movement is the strongest possible expression of the link between the environment and the community.