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Czech News in English » Life » PragueScape » Praguescape: Don't walk

Praguescape: Don’t walk

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Being a pedestrian in Prague means being an obstacle, something unwelcome that has the potential to slow down traffic. It means endlessly waiting on crosswalks and all too often being forced to take detours through dank, dark tunnels or overpasses with limited access. It means knowing when to break into a light jog when you’re crossing the street. It means mentally thanking every driver who doesn’t run you down. Until seven years ago, pedestrians here didn’t even have right of way on crosswalks.

It’s easy to blame Prague’s shortcomings on poor urban planning under the communist regime. But little has changed since 1989 to make the city safer for pedestrians. Aside from a few streets in the historical city centre, much of Prague still suffers from a lack of conveniently located crosswalks, heavy traffic, narrow sidewalks, too many parked cars and careless drivers who fail to respect speed limits.

When the city finally decided to give pedestrians priority on crosswalks in 2001, there was an outcry at first, with drivers worrying that this would slow down traffic. For a while, the city even considered reducing the number of crosswalks to maintain swift traffic flow.

Not much has changed. Some 80 crosswalks were eliminated as of 1 April, Czech papers reported earlier this month, and hundreds more could follow suit. The reason is the Transport Ministry’s new regulation, that states there must be no crosswalks passing over tram tracks unless there are also traffic lights. Rather than installing traffic lights or finding some creative solution, City Hall took the easy route and simply started painting over existing crosswalks, one after another.

That process was finally halted last week, following the outcry of Prague residents. City representatives and the Transport Ministry are set to reassess the regulation tomorrow. We’ll see what happens.

It makes little sense for urban planners to make traffic flow a priority. After all, it’s pedestrians, strolling down avenues, window-shopping and stopping in town squares, who make a city alive. Not just socially, but economically as well.

That’s why places with fast traffic and poorly situated crosswalks are often dead zones, unattractive cityscapes people pass through as quickly as possible. Areas like Olšanské náměstí, Flora, I.P. Pavlova, Radlická Street, Vítězné náměstí and Hradčanská Street are all prime examples.

At Flora, for example, railings around sidewalks and tram stops prevent pedestrians from crossing the street directly, forcing them instead to take longer routes through underground passageways.

Urban planning alone, of course, isn’t sufficient to make a city safer for pedestrians. Attitudes must change too. And not just those of the drivers.

From time to time, when police presents traffic accident statistics, Czech papers run stories about “reckless pedestrians”.

Paradoxically, one of the most successful ways of making streets safer in European cities has been the removal of traffic lights. A trend started five years ago in the Dutch town of Drachten has seen several German and Scandinavian cities reducing the number of traffic lights. The premise is that without traffic lights for guidance, pedestrians and drivers make more eye contact and greater effort to share the street. Accident statistics have shown that this seemingly counter-intuitive measure actually works. Could something like this work here? Or would the streets of Prague turn into corridors of zooming traffic with pockets of stranded pedestrians waiting in vain to cross?

Perhaps giving pedestrians the right of way everywhere at all times would be a safer option to begin with. In Canada, where I lived for 12 years, courtesy toward pedestrians is so deeply ingrained in the public psyche that most drivers automatically slow down as soon as they spot someone who looks as though he might consider crossing the street at some point. As a pedestrian, I’ve at times felt compelled to cross the street simply because a driver slowed down for my sake. As a driver, I’ve been reprimanded on a driving test for not checking my rearview mirror to make sure a pedestrian I’d just passed made it across the street safely.

Coming back to Prague always presents a rude awakening. How much longer will it take for pedestrians here to be upgraded from human obstacles to integral elements of a thriving city?

This is an updated version of an article that appeared in the Monitor 19 February 2008.

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