holyland 2014 060

Jerusalem’s “HaBankim” intersection

A few months ago, in the course of a Facebook discussion about pedestrian safety on Jerusalem’s most dangerous thoroughfare, Derech Hevron (Hebron Road), mention was made of an initiative to build a pedestrian underpass at the busy intersection known as Tsomet HaBankim. From the way in which the initiative was presented — by local elected officials known as advocates for good urbanism — it became clear that the idea is more than a passing fancy.

Not many details were offered, but it was noted that the initiative has a commercial side to it: the pedestrian underpass would not be a mere tunnel but also a shopping venue — an underground mall.

At first glance, the idea would appear to have much good sense behind it. On the one hand, the pedestrians who risk their lives daily while crossing one of the city’s more problematic intersections would get a full and comprehensive solution in the form of grade separation — total removal of pedestrians from the space occupied by vehicles. On the other hand, a private developer would fund this useful public service out of his own pocket, gaining in return a unique site with outstanding profit potential. After all, Tsomet HaBankim is an intersection teeming with people as well as a public transit hub.

What could be wrong with such a promising scenario?

Well, quite a number of things. Firstly, the plan disregards how pedestrians actually behave: they will ignore a tunnel or bridge when a street-level crossing exists, and they obviously won’t go out of their way to take advantage of a safety arrangement at one intersection when they are closer to another (whether the presence of underground shopping would affect the decision of someone who simply wants to get across the street is debatable). A tunnel at Tsomet HaBankim would hardly prevent accidents at the next intersection over, Tsomet Hollandia — which according to the Central Bureau of Statistics’ interactive traffic accident map has actually been the site of more accidents with injuries over the past decade than Tsomet HaBankim. Another problem with the initiative is that dedicated public transit lanes have already been created, at great cost, in the central portion of Derech Hevron; how would a pedestrian tunnel that bypasses the roadway help those who must reach bus stops (or, someday, light rail stops) in the middle of the roadway?

But the main problem with the initiative is what it says about our prevailing conception of Derech Hevron — what the thoroughfare is today and what it could be in the future. This conception — though shared by some of Jerusalem’s most well-meaning and sustainability-minded public officials — is essentially flawed.

Street, road and “stroad”

A few years ago a new term found its way into the North American urbanist lexicon: stroad — a portmanteau of street and road. The term refers to an ungainly crossbreed. On the one hand, a traditional street: a space where people converge, especially on foot, for a wide array of activities, including commerce, housing and recreation. On the other hand: a traffic artery in the narrow sense of the term — intended for the rapid movement of motor vehicles from Point A to Point B, and emphatically not intended for pedestrians.

The stroad has been defined as follows:

A Stroad is a street-road hybrid that frustrates everybody who uses it. Roads efficiently connect clusters of destinations [and are] fast, wide and straight. Streets have intersections, crosswalks, parking, cyclists and sidewalks.

 

A Stroad is both a bad Road and bad Street: the worst of both worlds, frustrating and harming drivers, cyclists, pedestrians, businesses and homeowners.

The term stroad was coined by a Minnesota-based activist named Charles Marohn who has lately garnered considerable media attention as the founder of the Strong Towns movement. Marohn, a self-described “recovering engineer,” frequently compares the stroad to a futon: just as a futon is both an uncomfortable couch and an uncomfortable bed, so is the stroad “an auto corridor that does not move cars efficiently while simultaneously providing little in the way of value capture.”

The use of the term “value capture” reflects the overall philosophy of Marohn, who emphasizes in his many writings and talks the need to develop land resources in an economically effective way. As Marohn sees it, the stroad does not provide an appropriate return on investment: it eats up funding at both the construction and maintenance stages, yet prevents the more productive kind of commercial development from emerging due to the unpleasant and hostile pedestrian environment that it creates. This insight is beginning to gain traction in North America, not only via special-interest websites but also through the mass media, as may be seen in articles that have been appearing in mainstream news outlets (examples here, here and here).

The idea of solving pedestrian safety problems at Tsomet HaBankim by means of “grade separation” presupposes that Derech Hevron is a highway, and that it has none of the attributes that we associate with a traditional city street. This assumption is wholly mistaken; yet it is no wonder that people accept it uncritically, given the thoroughfare’s highway-like appearance. If it looks like a highway, one would tend to assume that it acts like one. But before we declare Derech Hevron a lost cause for pedestrians and chase them underground, we might want to try regarding the thoroughfare not as a highway but as a highway/street hybrid — a stroad. From that vantage point we could then identify some of Derech Hevron’s pedestrian-hostile features and consider the possibility of fixing them — thereby transforming  an ugly and dangerous traffic artery into a safe and attractive urban boulevard.

The urban boulevard alternative

Let’s look for a moment at a successful urban boulevard — North Michigan Avenue in Chicago. However absurd it might seem to compare Chicago’s “Magnificent Mile” with one of Jerusalem’s drearier car sewers, the comparison is nevertheless instructive — the more so as North Michigan Avenue is by no means car-free or even car-lite. The Google Street View image directly below shows three lanes of traffic in each direction. Yet the thoroughfare is obviously also a people magnet. It looks like a place, not like a traffic artery:

N. Michigan Ave. (Google Street View)

N. Michigan Ave. sidewalk

A few things worth noting about North Michigan Avenue: it has attractive median and sidewalk landscaping; the buildings come right up to the sidewalk, providing pedestrians with objects of visual interest and good access to shops and businesses; and there are no pedestrian-hostile gaps in the urban fabric — though the streetscape is punctuated here and there by plazas and parks, which break up the sequence of buildings in a positive way:N. Michigan Ave. parkCompare North Michigan Avenue’s planted median with Derech Hevron’s ugly guard rail that hints to drivers that they are on a high-speed road and need not take the presence of pedestrians into account:

DSCF3227

Rails such as the one pictured above are meant, in part, to discourage mid-block crossings, but the more adventurous manage to bypass them anyway, and one could certainly argue that the highway-like atmosphere they create outweighs any safety benefit they might provide. Road design features are known to influence driver perceptions and behavior; when drivers receive visual cues that they are on a highway, they will drive accordingly. One thing is certain: an urban thoroughfare that serves pedestrians merits something better.

Now let’s compare North Michigan Avenue’s friendly huddle of structures built out to the sidewalk with the large building setbacks or buffer walls that characterize much construction along Derech Hevron. This mode of construction is problematic most anywhere, but especially on a major urban thoroughfare, where it both repels pedestrians and constitutes a waste of good commercial space. Ground-level retail would have provided a buffer for residences and offices on higher floors while also creating value along the street:

Blank walls and cosmetic greenery as buffer, rather than lively commerce at ground level — a mistake that’s hard to undo

Unlike North Michigan Avenue, the segment of Derech Hevron that currently has the most to gain from foot traffic — that between Tsomet HaBankim and Tsomet Hollandia — is marred by uncongenial uses that seem designed to inconvenience, endanger or just plain insult pedestrians. In order to reach the restaurants and businesses in Beit HaNatziv, a major new commercial building, one has to walk around a gas station …

29.10.14 027

… while the adjacent  Hollandia building’s ground-floor retail is separated from the sidewalk by a parking lot and stone wall — as though expressly to scare away non-motorized customers.

Derech Hevron’s overall design manages quite cleverly to downplay, camouflage or belittle the thoroughfare’s non-car uses — yet one can hardly regard it as a “border vacuum” that needs to be bridged over or tunneled under. There’s too much going on there besides internal combustion.

All along Derech Hevron, as one moves northward from the Baram intersection, one finds housing, businesses and services, located in buildings that span the architectural spectrum — from handsome historic structures to dilapidated 1950s-era public housing to modernist high-rises under construction:

The density and urban intensiveness that characterize Derech Hevron and its near environs are reflected in constant movement of pedestrians, not merely at Tsomet HaBankim but all along the street. For the residents of Baka, Arnona, and other adjoining neighborhoods, Derech Hevron should not have to be an obstacle or dead zone. The thoroughfare should not be separating the neighborhoods but rather connecting them.

From stroad to boulevard

After many years of failed auto-centric planning, cities around the world are increasingly rediscovering and reinforcing the diverse, mixed-use character of urban arterials and improving conditions for the pedestrians (and cyclists) who use them. Toronto, San Francisco, Portland, Oregon — these and other localities have developed a large and varied toolkit for what might be termed “stroad repair.” The specific situation of each thoroughfare dictates the tools and techniques used to improve it.

With regard to Derech Hevron, I’ve already noted some major design flaws and hinted at the tools that could be used to address them: the ugly median rail, which should be replaced with some sort of landscaping; the gas station in front of Beit Hanatziv, which should be relocated and replaced with a pedestrian-friendly use, such as a plaza, pocket park or open-air market; and the parking lot in front of the Hollandia building, which likewise could be put to more productive and attractive use. Beyond that, it is crucial that driver and pedestrian behavior along the thoroughfare be analyzed, so that street geometry, signage and signalling (e.g. pedestrian waiting times) — as well as enforcement (how about speed cameras?) — can be improved.

And what of the underground mall envisioned for Tsomet HaBankim? Well, taken on its own terms it’s an interesting idea that is worth discussing. But make no mistake: this idea is based not only on an explicit awareness of the site’s business potential, but also on a tacit understanding of the importance of foot traffic there, as a catalyst for commercial success. An underground mall should be thought of as a supplement to the vibrant urban boulevard that will one day emerge at street level, in place of the existing stroad. It should not be conceived as an alternative to a pedestrian-friendly boulevard, and certainly not as the preeminent safety solution for all the many people who pass through the area on foot.

This isn’t rocket science. We have already turned Jaffa Road into Israel’s longest pedestrian mall; what is being proposed here is not to remove motor vehicles altogether from Derech Hevron but rather to soften their impact on the thoroughfare’s other users — while also reaping an economic benefit. Unfortunately we are used to sorting places into very rigid categories of use, and have trouble thinking outside of these categories. We long ago decided that Jaffa Road should be the city’s “display window” and a perennial object of cosmetic pampering; that single-use enclaves — such as the high-rise office park planned for the entrance to the city, or the new sports Arena in Malha — should be our economic engines; that Jerusalem’s peripheral neighborhoods should be places in which to sleep; and that thoroughfares such as Derech Hevron, Golda Meir Boulevard in Ramot, and the variously-named main road of Gilo should be conduits for motor vehicles and nothing more. We must free ourselves of this conceptual inflexibility if we want to move Jerusalem forward and make the city a place that is convenient and pleasant to live in; we need to discover the potential for diversity and value that is hidden in places originally destined for monotony and economic sterility.

Why not start with Jerusalem’s deadliest stroad — Derech Hevron?

The author would like to thank Michelle Sofge, Lawrence Feldman, Ariela Cornfeld and Robert Dobek for their helpful comments on an earlier version of this post.