Getting People Up From The Underground

Lifting people to street level and making it easy to walk about the city would boost retailing, tourism and the city's competitiveness. This past summer the Danish architect and champion of "livable cities" Jan Gehl delivered his report to the city authorities.

Ashley Bristowe / For REQ

Moscow's main shopping streets see lower footfall than any comparable city, and tourist destinations such as Old Arbat are almost deserted in winter, according to the findings of an international architect commissioned by the Moscow mayoralty.

Jan Gehl, the Danish proponent of "livable cities" was impressed by how much had changed on a visit to Moscow in the summer: ranks of bicycles for hire, cycle lanes, boulevards of trees and benches.

Presenting his findings to official planners, architects, students and residents, he recommended major measures to remove tunnels under the roads, improve traffic lights and crossings, and "bring people up from underground". Retailers, tourists and the city's competitiveness would benefit.

 "In the old days we tried to force people into cars now we try to get every body out of cars and at least have them walk to the car or the metro," said Gehl, outlining his belief that lack of exercise kills more people than smoking.

"People are not rational enough to spend half an hour in the fitness center. We realize we have to build into the ordinary city planning for people to take exercise. Humans are walking animals," he told an audience at the Strelka architectural institute.

Gehl Architects has worked for 20 years on city improvement around the world, including London and New York. In 2011 he met the mayor of Moscow and was asked to compile a similar report for Moscow. That's when he visited Russia for the first time but the city's history and character, its waterways, greenery and low-rise buildings immediately struck him.

"Copenhagen wid- ened the bicycle lanes and discovered that they carry five times as many people as a car lane."

"It's a rather compact city with wide boulevards and an elaborate metro system and the city is globally recognized for many cultural events and institutions.

"Then the whole thing is inundated in traffic and motor cars so you can hardly see the good things. Public transport is great underground but not so good on the surface. There are few cities I have studied where the pedestrians are treated so badly."

The authorities have trained people not to walk in Moscow, he said. The maximum number of pedestrians using the city's most famous shopping street, Tverskaya ulitsa, at the height of the summer, on a weekday, was 19,000 people. That compares with 100,000 people on a central London street each day. In Sydney, 50,000 people a day. St. Petersburg's Nevsky Prospect has almost five times as many pedestrians as Tverskaya. And in winter, he noted, there are almost no people on Moscow's Old Arbat.

Triumfalnaya Ploshchad, better known as Mayakovsky Square, was unfriendly to people, and the city as a whole lacked places to rest. There are few sidewalk cafes, even in summer, compared to much smaller Melbourne, for example, which has 15,000 outdoor café seats.

Although he described the metro as beautiful, he said it was overcrowded and misused. People descend almost 100 meters in order to travel half a kilometer and then ride the escalators back up at the next station. This creates a mushroom effect, a hubbub of people and kiosks stretching 200 meters around each metro station but almost no one between them.

Moscow had done many things right, he said. Skyscrapers had largely been confined to one district, Moskva City, rather than scattered around the city, which remains mostly low-rise. Much outdoor advertising had been removed.

The city should copy Montreal, where the bicycle network functions through the winter. "And reduce the speed in the city. It is the only city that has Formula One every day because many of the streets look like an airport runway."

Copenhagen started to pedestrianize 50 years ago and they continue by small improvements, he said. Every year they remove three per cent of the parking, so that people gradually start traveling around the city in other ways. Every major city street has bicycle lanes. Almost 40 per cent of commuters going to work arrive on a bicycle. They widened the bicycle lanes and discovered that bicycle lanes carry five times as many people as a car lane.

"It is easier to make a livable city for a population of 1.5 million compared with a city of 14 million that is expanding rapidly but that just makes it more urgent".

New York had successfully reduced the 1.5 million commuter cars in the city every day. It began by closing streets like Park Avenue on Sundays. The city is creating 5,000 km of bicycle lanes. The result, said Gehl, was more turnover for shopkeepers and happier tourists.

Financially Moscow would benefit from the measures because cities no longer compete on which is the most modern but which is most livable.

The city needs to study further how to connect the city with the water. He said 93 percent of all waterfronts face on to roads or parking. In London, Paris and New York about 50 percent of the waterfront has been made available for people to sit or stroll, he said.

The city should add heavy rail and stations at the fringe. The metro system should focus on taking people from the suburbs into the city, not around the city. In the city center there should be lower speeds and parking at the fringe. Light rail should provide efficient surface transportation so that pedestrians on a long street like Tverskaya ulitsa can take a break from walking.