Twenty Meters in Eleven Minutes: Anti-Pedestrian Planning in Warsaw

“Absurdity in the middle of the city. I have to overcome the distance of 20 meters, and it takes me more than 11 minutes”. That’s how Anna, a young woman from Warsaw, described on Facebook her recent experience. She uploaded a video showing how she tries to cross a street in the city. And it wasn't as easy as it should be.

Anna wanted to get to the other side of a street in Mokotów, a densely populated district in the polish capital. Since there were no zebra crossings at that part of the street, she had to use a pedestrian bridge. She was walking with a baby stroller and had to use the elevator, but the elevator didn’t work. So Anna walked to another bridge, used another elevator, and crossed an additional zebra crosswalk.

11 minutes and 20 seconds later, Anna reached her destination, just a few meters from where she started.

Warsaw is full of underpasses and bridges. It seems as if traffic engineers rule the public space of the city, and that their ultimate goal is that cars would be able to run freely around. I’ve visited Warsaw quite few times in the last months, and crossing a road in the city is indeed not an easy task. Under-crossings and bridges make the journey longer, and zebra crosswalks are rather uncommon.

When you finally find a zebra crosswalk, you’ll have to stop on a traffic island in the middle of the road, because green lights for pedestrians are very short. It’s common to see people running their way through crosswalks, just to make it.

It would have been funny if it wasn’t a sad story of prioritizing drivers over pedestrians.

But this is not only Warsaw’s problem. Many cities around the world were built for the car, putting attention only to vehicles flow. Pedestrians, cyclists and public transport vehicles were seen by urban planners as a disturbance. In the mid-twentieth-century, engineers would have probably banned pedestrians from public spaces. But they couldn’t, so they built bridges and underpasses, just not to interrupt drivers.

We might think that the tendency toward a car-friendly infrastructure has only a small effect on our daily experiences. Mostly, we just need to use an overpass or underpass, or walk a hundred meters further in order to cross the street. It’s easy to ignore these small inconveniences. It takes an absurd example like that one from Warsaw to show why something is wrong in the way cities are planned.

Though the importance of walkability to cities’ health, safety and economy is widely acknowledged, we are stuck with cities that are not suitable for enjoyable walking. The solution is obvious: if we could build these massive roads - we can also tear them down. However, reducing roads and slowing down cars is politically difficult. Car owners get angry, and politicians are afraid. Consequently, decision makers and planners in many cities still choose to prefer cars over pedestrians.

The solution lies in priorities. Anna, the woman from Warsaw, asked in the video a good question: “for whom this city is - for people or for cars?”. If the answer is people, then it shouldn’t take 11 minutes to pass some twenty meters.

Thumbnail picture by Tobi Gaulke, licensed under Creative Commons.

Written by Lior Steinberg. Lior is an urban planner, currently based in Groningen, the Netherlands. Follow him on Twitter or read more.