Streets and user experience
STREETLIFE - Nigel Paul Villarete (The Freeman) - July 23, 2019 - 12:00am

Last week, we asked “What are streets for?” and immediately launched into the concept of “planning for people, not for cars.” This was an immediate reaction to the trail of “street-clearing” initiatives being done in the capital city, being advertised as “political will.” Admittedly, it is, for a nation hungry for leaders doing something to address a current governance impasse and doing despite political risks. The question is; are we doing the right thing?

Car owners will immediately jump into the debate claiming that streets are for cars and that should be strictly imposed. We said that this theory is actually a very recent one in the history of cities and that for the last 99% of history (i.e., except for the last century), was not true --streets were actually made for people.

That’s why even with the rapid clearing operations, not so many cars went through the “emancipated” streets and congestion really didn’t improve. “User experience” has proven it otherwise.

Oftentimes, what is originally designed will not be exactly used. We can readily see this is beautifully-designed, manicured, cemented pathways in parks which are not used when people simply walk over the grass, creating earth-trodden paths which are more direct and easier to navigate.

It takes an understanding of what people really want to design something that will be useful. In the case of streets, we can force the issue on their use, but at a hard price --depriving people of how they want it used.

We need to understand that there are many stakeholders on a street and its sidewalk, especially where sidewalk vending is historically allowed --drivers, pedestrians, cyclists (yes, they exist!), and of course, the vendors. There are some who wail that sidewalks should be cleared of vendors so pedestrians can walk freely.

But vendors won’t stay where they can’t earn money, and the fact that they persist in wherever street or sidewalk they vend means people patronize them --both the pedestrians passing through, or people specifically visiting the areas to buy something. Others suggest vendors should be relocated somewhere else, not in the streets or sidewalks, but then they will lose their regular customers who walk through those areas in the course of their daily lives. Street-clearing may look good, but this impacts the lives of both the vendors and the pedestrians negatively in ways authorities might not have imagined.

In short, it takes more than a display of political will to realize what’s good for the people, especially the disadvantaged groups. And leaders must involve their constituents in a consultative and participative manner. The reason why many cities of the world ultimately decided to just make some streets completely pedestrianized (as I described in last week’s article) is because they realize that in many cases, the people’s user experience will and must govern, in a case-to-case basis. In the end, good governance is for people, and in a world of diversity, it is for the majority and for the disadvantaged sectors. Not under the tyranny of the elite minority.

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