Visualizing a Walkable City

Metrominuto traz

Following on from some recent posts on walking, I thought I’d link to another interesting article. This time from Eduardo Ares at Polis

The metrominuto map above shows the distance and time it takes to walk across the city of Pontevedra in northwest Spain. Rendered in the style of the ubiquitous London Tube Map, metrominuto is the local council’s way of turning their small city into a navigable, hospitable and walkable terrain. Together with the map, Pontevedra have taken a number of other steps to make the city pedestrian-friendly. As Ares says:

Instead of razing old buildings and constructing bigger roads, the city council began taking proactive measures to reduce traffic. They widened sidewalks, established a free bike-lending service, installed speed bumps and set a speed limit of 30 kilometers per hour throughout the city. They even banned motorized transport in sections of Pontevedra. Walking zones now extend from the historic center to streets and squares in newer neighborhoods.

By all accounts these moves are hardly revolutionary. Over the last 15-20 years western cities of all sizes have shunned the automobile in their centres. Large swathes of central Manchester were pedestrianized in the 1980s, with a tram line returning to the city in 1992. Market Street and Piccadilly Gardens in particular have seen sweeping re-developments over the years, attesting to the fact that such moves have been the norm rather than the exception in local urban policy. Chorlton and Wythenshawe likewise saw pedestrianized shopping areas (or ‘precincts’) spring up even earlier in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and Coventry has also had a rather contentious precinct for a similar length of time (see Hubbard and Lilley’s [2004] paper: subscription only). In each the local population is of varying size and demographic. Chorlton is now a sprawling South Manchester suburb, but with arguably a young, white and middle-class core. Wythenshawe lies a little further south and is one of Manchester’s poorest areas. Coventry is a small Midlands city with a large second- and third-generation Caribbean, Indian and Pakistani community. The modernist ideals of a pedestrian shopping core seemingly implanted irrespective of such factors.

Wyth precinct 1970
The shopping precinct at Wythenshawe civic centre, around 1970. Via Visual Resources @ MMU
The upper precinct, c. 1954 (source: Coventry and Warwickshire Collection, Coventry Libraries and Information Service).
The upper precinct, c. 1954 (source: Coventry and Warwickshire Collection, Coventry Libraries and Information Service). From Hubbard and Lilley (2004)

So what makes this a particularly noteworthy civic project? Are comparisons to this specific brand of UK post-war urban regeneration profitable? I think the difference lies within how Pontevedra has foregrounded the metrominuto map itself. It gives us an insight into how this project has come to fruition. Manchester does admittedly have a number of sited pedestrian maps, but none make prominent the A-to-B nature of walking like the Pontevedra example. In the same way as mass transit authorities around the world have used Harry Beck’s famous Tube Map design to enhance the utility of fixed rail/track travel, so the city officials have imported these characteristics into a utilitarian walking map. This is where Pontevedra differs to the modern urbanism of Chorlton, Wythenshawe and Coventry. The design speaks for itself. Straight lines are everywhere. Walkers are encouraged to follow the quickest and most direct route. Only the kilometre long riverside walk to the train station is gifted a meandering depiction, complete with lush fields, rounded trees and sky blue water. All routes have unambiguous figures relating to time and distance. 7 minutes to the hospital. 4 minutes to the car park. Perhaps this is why Pontevedra has won an award from Intermodes for what they call ‘the first pedestrian network in Europe’. This isn’t about a distinct shopping area or indeed a single street or junction, but a facilitative network designed to feed into the existing transport system. In this sense, Pontevedra has remarkably different aims: to conceive of the act of walking as a utility.

If I am to continue to make connections back to the city of Manchester then the pedestrianization of the Deansgate/Cathedral area perhaps also draws on this bi-pedal inter-connectivity, serving to re-connect the city of Salford with Manchester; a much-maligned area that has nonetheless been trumpeted as an ‘important gateway’ into the city. Terms like ‘touching’, ‘bridging’ and ‘linking’ have all been deployed to characterise this development. Although for many years this has been a vehicular gateway enabling automobile commuters from North Manchester to enter the city rather than anything else. This kind of pedestrianization has more in common with Pontevedra than even the city’s own interpretations over the last 30 years. Salford’s car parks (cheaper than Manchester’s!) should get an ever greater boost as office workers leave their cars on one side of the river and walk over. Its conception is part of a wider transport integration project rather than any narrow consumer boost. The opening of new coffee shops, bars and restaurants is a necessary dimension but not the driving force. Pontevedra, though, seem to have got there first.

'Greengate Embankment is being developed along the twin city boundary, unique in the UK as the only place where two cities touch' Via Ask Developments
‘Greengate Embankment is being developed along the twin city boundary, unique in the UK as the only place where two cities touch’ Via Ask Developments

Railways, ticketing and digital technology

The second article is from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on the implementation of a new ticketing system on the Swiss railways. People in the UK will be familiar with a general diversification in ticket purchasing over the last few years, and you can typically buy in advance online or via smart phones. This alongside the traditional methods of both purchasing tickets at the station and on the train itself. However, the latter method has been abolished in Switzerland, which has led to some annoyances. Imogen Foulkes who writes the article gives three examples of the resulting confusion:

Take, for example, the young man with a ticket which must be date-stamped by a machine on the platform. The machine is out of order, so he carefully writes in the date by hand, gets on board, and is fined by the conductor for not having a valid ticket.

There is the pensioner, out for a day with his grandson, who kindly bought both their tickets on his mobile phone, but it turns out you are only allowed one e-ticket per person, so poor old granddad is fined.

And then, there is me. One frosty morning I arrived at my local station to find that the ticket machine was broken. No matter, I thought, I have got a smartphone, and I hurriedly set about buying my ticket that way.

In her own personal example she discovers a significant set of obstacles:

This was not as easy as I had hoped, fiddling between credit card and phone with freezing cold fingers, but, by the time I got on the intercity to Geneva I had an e-ticket and I proudly showed it to the conductor.

Unfortunately she was less than impressed and told me in no uncertain terms that my ticket was not valid. Why, only became clear several weeks later when a letter arrived from Swiss railways euphemistically named “revenue protection service”.

The good people there tell me the formal payment for my ticket from my credit card company arrived four minutes after my train left the station. That means, they say, that I bought my ticket on the train – and that is not allowed.

So, in using a mobile device to purchase her ticket she sidestepped the queues at the station – a reason many people are late for trains, and a general annoyance for all. But in doing so she also shifted the work of finding and paying of it back to herself from any clerk or collector. Coupled with the rather chilly Swiss weather, this wasn’t – it seems – a particularly easy task to perform. After being left to ponder why her ticket was invalid, she finally discovers that due to a delay in the processing of the payment her ticket was technically bought after the train had left the station. The administrative inference being that she had bought the ticket on the train (although actually impossible). Although Foulkes doesn’t go into the details I’d guess there was an issue with having a ticket for a specific train (the 11.10 rather than than 11.23) and that there was a price difference between the two. Thus she was ‘cheating the system’ by buying a cheaper ticket for the later train than the one she was travelling on. In effect then, she was travelling on the train without the correct ticket and thus liable to be fined the rather extortionate amount of 190 Swiss Francs (£133!).

The reason why I found it interesting was two-fold. Firstly, it was her use of a mobile device to purchase a ticket. Secondly, it was a technological delay outside of Foulke’s control that created a very real and financially problematic effect. Both point to the distributed mechanics and agency of everyday mobility. Would it be at all within Foulke’s rights to blame her debit card processor for the fine she received? Presumably Swiss Federal Railways would require evidence for this delay. But how would she provide evidence for this? Could she contact her card processor and trace the temporal  actions of her ticket purchase? Say, by linking the exact time she pressed specific icons (‘conclude payment’, ‘confirm purchase’ etc.) to the time it took for her to receive her e-ticket. Presumably most payments process within a certain timeframe (4-5 seconds?) – so what if her’s took longer than expected? Where would the liability lie? At the door of the card processing company? Swiss Federal Railways for commissioning a clunky ticket application? Or the software company who coded it? Or, of course, with Foulkes and similar train passengers, who in her own words have simply ‘done their best to buy a ticket’.