Of Historic Buildings and Jaywalking

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I love historic buildings. There, I've admitted it. They say that's the first step. When I think of the downtown or of the city in general, I think of the buildings first. But, not surprisingly, people interact with those buildings and the downtown.

After work this past week I have attended a few workshops on PRATS (the Public Realm and Transportation Survey being done for the downtown). It has been fascinating listening to the different ideas about how to improve the downtown.

One thing I've come to realize is that jaywalking by-laws may influence the viability of the downtown and (in a round about way) encourage the preservation of the historic buildings located there.

We need to make the downtown more viable. One way to do that is to get more people down there and to keep them there longer. Rather than driving through, people need to walk and explore and sit for a coffee and shop and… The best downtowns are gathering places, living places, walking places – the downtown needs to be pedestrian friendly.

When it was built 10o+ years ago, our downtown was all of these things. The city was smaller. People were more accustomed to walking. There was less competition with vehicles. But, especially since the Second World War, we have created a world designed for cars and we have become a society much more about getting places rather than staying places. Now we’re trying to reverse that. How to achieve it?

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According to some web-sites I found, Jaywalking laws were deliberately promoted by automobiles enthusiasts and dealers to redefine the concept of the street as solely the purview of cars and not pedestrians. Jaywalking was a way to protect the pedestrian but just as importantly it was a way to clear the street of walkers so that cars could travel easier and quicker.

One of the concepts being discussed now is to have the downtown redesigned in a way that makes the place more walkable and more about sharing the space rather than completely delineating it. The plan is to make the sidewalks bigger so people will walk more. Make the roads smaller, so traffic will slow down. If the roads are smaller and traffic is slower, there are more people and people will shop and access the cafes and restaurants and (my strongest hope) appreciate the historic buildings more. And (and here you can really see my bias) if the sidewalks are larger there will be much better opportunities for taking guided historic walking tours through the downtown to build even more appreciation of its unique history and architecture. [This is not for all roads in the downtown. Cars do still need to get places, too.]

And I think in all of this we should have a really serious review of our jaywalking bylaws. I know some cities have made jaywalking legal in their downtowns. I would love to hear from people. Does it work? Or not?