Desirable streets

What makes a street desirable? Where do people prefer to walk and why?

Over the past year, the pandemic forced dramatic changes in our cities, especially when it comes to outdoor public places. Because of restrictions, there was less traffic on busy streets, showing us a different reality, of car-free towns and cities.

Instead of viewing streets as spaces for cars, they could be considered places for communities, that support local economies, encourage healthier lifestyles and improve the air quality. By prioritizing pedestrians and creating walkable and desirable streets, all this could be achieved. As Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, said about transforming sections of Times Square into large pedestrian plazas: “It’s possible to change your streets quickly. It’s not expensive, it can provide immediate benefits, and it can be quite popular. You just need to reimagine your streets. They’re hidden in plain sight.”

What does a desirable street look like?

According to the research by the MIT Senseable City Lab, Desirable Streets: Using Deviations in Pedestrian Trajectories to Measure the Value of the Built Environment, desirability is a term used to ”describe street segments that pedestrians systematically use when they deviate from the shortest path, regardless of the origin or destination of their journey”.

On average, pedestrians choose to walk around 10% farther than their shortest path. The challenge is to find out why.

By analyzing people’s deviations from the shortest path in more than 120.000 trips, researchers from MIT found that there are 3 main reasons for this behavior:

  • to avoid busy major roads
  • to visit amenities and shops and
  • to access green space

New data and technologies can help urban planners and policymakers understand the geo-social dynamics of the neighborhood/ city. A desirability index  allows urban planners to identify areas with low desirability that are in need of improvements. The index can also trace how specific streets change in time. This can be useful to revitalize distressed streets or detect areas affected by urban change.

The MIT research concludes that desirable streets have better access to parks, good sidewalks, and a higher presence of urban furniture, underscoring the importance of pedestrian infrastructure for supporting pedestrian activity, and also strenghtening evidence on the importance of parks for physical activity and leisure.

The post-pandemic city streets

After the onset of the Covid pandemic there has been a lot of talk about short-term measures to support social distancing and outdoor activities in cities, resulting in successful initiatives. With loosening restrictions and growing pedestrian and cyclists number, cities need to adapt to the new behaviors and conditions and develop a long-term strategy for public spaces. With the help of big data, new technologies and intelligent urban planning, our post-pandemic cities can become more resilient and green, as well as healthier and people-friendlier, if walkability is improved. Or, as Barcelona city councilor Janet Sanz stated when talking in 2016 about „Superblocks”(mini neighborhoods with reduced car access and green „citizen spaces” around which traffic flows):  “Our objective is for Barcelona to be a city in which to live”.

In Romania, new initiatives are starting to come out: The Ministry of Environment just launched the civic campaign “Green Friday” in an effort to reduce pollution in major cities, asking drivers to leave their cars at home once a week. Institutions in Romania will have to inform their employees about this campaign, and ask them to choose another method of transportation on Fridays. Participation is voluntary, and those who will choose the means of public transport will travel for free.