Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Worldwide Walking: Munich

So does Munich really deserve the moniker of most walkable in the world?

Like Vienna, Munich is rife with pedestrian zones:
Pedestrian-only plazas:
And toucan crossings:
But like I said in my last post, I'm not as impressed by the walkability of cities that developed when the only real form of transportation was walking. Not to say they aren't great--just that it's a lot harder to create a walkable city after the fact, and cities that manage to do so deserve extra credit.

So while I appreciated everything that Munich had to offer in the way of walkability, I wasn't quite ready to call it the best in the world...until I discovered this:

Sure, it looks like an ordinary midblock crossing. You might even find something similar in a progressive town here in the US. What sets it apart isn't the crossing itself, it's the way drivers (including transit drivers, as this crossing spans a light-rail lane) behave towards it. Unlike an unsignalized crossing in the US, where you might hover for several minutes hoping to find a gap in traffic large enough to let you dart to the other side of the street, at this crossing an amazing thing happens when you arrive at the edge of the crosswalk: drivers stop.

No really, they do.

Not only that, they did it promptly and consistently every single time a pedestrian appeared on the horizon. I was stunned, especially given that here in LA a pedestrian is lucky to get that kind of behavior even when they have the right of way.

And it wasn't just this crossing. I found similar behavior at unsignalized crossings all over the region. Once I got over the shock, it was pretty empowering. Suddenly I understood what it feels like when pedestrians are given the same kind of respect that vehicles receive. Crossing the road went from being a daring feat to an ordinary part of navigating the streetscape, just like turning a corner.

It reminded me that all the pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in the world doesn't mean much if vehicles are still systematically placed above people in the hierarchy of travel modes. A truly walkable city doesn't just have walkable streets, it has a walkable attitude. And Munich definitely has it.


  1. London drivers used to be like this, too. When I went there for the first time 20+ years ago, it seemed universal that they always stopped for peds. When I visited last month, it was like they had become possessed, like peds didn't even exist -- they were not just inconsiderate but also reckless, speeding and running red lights. (Peds also weren't paying attention to lights, but for the most part their behavior seemed safer than waiting.)

    I guess the question in my mind is how did Munich get its drivers to behave so well (and what the heck happened in London)? Is enforcement more rigorous? Are penalties higher?

  2. Eileen,
    These are all good questions, and I'm going to devote a little time over the weekend to seeing if I can understand them better.

    I did discover that the blue pedestrian signs, unlike "safety" signs here that merely warn drivers of the possibility that a pedestrian could be around, actually indicate that pedestrians have the right-of-way and (I assume) that vehicles must yield to any pedestrians present. It's a subtle difference from our laws, which don't require yielding until a ped is actually within the street.

  3. When I moved from the DC area to Carson City, NV, I had to completely re-teach myself how to drive. when I was walking, drivers were frequently stopped before I was even fully prepared to look for a gap. when I was driving it was clear pedestrians expected to be given the right of way, and the traffic stream collectively knew to stop. on my less than 2 mile daily commute, I average stopping for a pedestrian in a crosswalk a day, and it's not like Carson City is a walkable mecca, either. somehow, and I don't know how, the culture was different there. some people said it was proximity to California, but I don't think that's the full explanation.

    sadly I've since moved to Texas, where I'm back to expecting no one to stop when I walk, and being afraid to stop when I drive for fear the SUV or pickup truck behind me will just rear end me while the drivers gabs away on a cell phone.

  4. So you're saying California is considered a good influence on Nevada? Yikes! I'm curious to know if anyone has studied regional differences in driver behavior towards pedestrians. There certainly has been that kind of research in other areas of driver behavior (not surprisingly, Californians are considered more aggressive drivers than folks elsewhere in the country).