Transportation is only one of many elements that constitute urban life; there is a lot more to do in public places: gathering, chatting, having a date, sitting around, selling or buying stuff, playing, window shopping, strolling, selling newspapers, protesting, playing music, bootlegging, begging… This may have something to do with the fact that there are many derivatives of the word traffic in Hungarian with different meanings, such as “chatting” (trafikál) or “trading” (trafik).
It is no wonder that the historical centers of some cities that remain mostly intact since the Middle Ages are popular with tourists. Their rambling, zigzagging, and erratic street network designs molded by geographical elements are on a human scale, pleasant to walk in, human-friendly, and well articulated; the buildings of only a few stories that constitute them are in close connection (within range of visibility and audibility) with the events happening on the streets. For thousands of years, cities grew organically this way, and walking was the prime means of transport, from one place to another.
This default design started to change in the second half of the nineteenth century, when the father of the ideal European metropolis, George Eugène Haussmann redesigned Paris: by demolishing crowded medieval-type districts, he created new avenues, squares, and parks, standardized the width of the streets and set commensurate height restriction limits for buildings. The new, wider and more proportional roads allowed for the construction of coherent and spectacular rows of buildings.
Avenues served various purposes: they represented the wealth and power of the city that could afford to build them; they allowed for better ventilation; building them also allowed for the construction of utilities; their ample width allowed for horse-drawn carriages of various rows to make U-turns; they served as fire barriers as well; and from a military perspective, they presented lines of sight and were easy to target in case of riots. These aspects were all part of the concept for the Sugár-út (today, Andrássy Avenue) of Pest, which was built in 1876 based on examples in Berlin and Vienna that copied the Parisian model. There was an additional chief aim for its construction, that of turning Budapest into a coequal capital of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy with Vienna, both in design and in fact.
It was during this period that sidewalks appeared in the city. According to the recollections of József Mihályfi, former chief architect of Budapest in 1910: “The first asphalt pavement was created in 1870 on the narrow Hatvani street (which is a wide road today called Kossuth Lajos Street), and this gave way to the modernization of road surfaces. After a few prior experiments, the first elevated sidewalk for pedestrians was built here, too.” A sidewalk or pavement was thus an extra, originally—it was not even considered that it should be obligatory to use it—: it provided a convenient and clean surface to walk on, free of puddles and parked carriages. By 1927, 2.2 million square-meters of paved surface was available for Budapesters to walk on.
Horse-drawn omnibuses, trams, and automobiles allowed for one to go farther and farther in the same given time, and this led to a constant expansion of cities. Ever since, it is still evident that any development that promises to reduce commuting time for passengers induces further sprawl, that is, the shorter travel time becomes, the further we move, hence we eventually end up spending the same amount of time commuting. The larger and speedier motorized traffic grew during the early twentieth century, the more road safety declined in urban areas. In January 1928, in the course of a single month, 70 people were killed on the roads of Budapest.
“Every time a pedestrian encounters an automobile gliding on the road in the capital city […] common opinion demands that the pedestrian should be the one that is the more clever. […] Here, thus, those who commute by car was given the right to be the less clever ones. Though this right has not been established, still, it exists and it is consecrated by the annual statistics of pedestrians killed by cars. Such a way of acquiring rights is a Hungarian specialty; this is the homeland where abuse turns into a source of right. The streets, however, belong to pedestrians. Simply based on the principle of majority […]. Cars were allowed only as a concession.. […] And the concession turned into an evil, murderous power; a far more bloody power than that of the sword back in history,” wrote the newspaper Pesti Napló in 1905.
The daily Pesti Hírlap went so far as to blame pedestrians, with a startling yet familiar set of arguments: “it is almost always the pedestrian public that wants to hit the tram or the car.” Pedestrians are “fierce enemies of the ones powered by engines, but they will either lose the battle one by one or they will give in and get on an engine themselves. Until then, however, they keep on attacking the traffic and forcing the desperately defendant car drivers and chauffeurs with inexhaustible tactics.”
The problem could be solved in two different ways based on two different scales of urban planning: if the base unit of urban transport is the human being, then the diverse and lively city streets should not be turned into monofunctional roads and channels of traffic. Instead, by limiting the difference in speed between the various means of transport, we can provide safety for everyone involved. The other option is to segregate the respective surfaces for walking and for driving, hoping that the stream of cars can become uninterrupted and fast. This latter option looks at the city from a larger perspective, from a bird’s eye view.
Almost all cities opted for the latter solution. In 1930, walking (and bicycle riding) on main roads was banned in Budapest. One could only cross the road at crossroads, heading straight through at designated areas—today one would say the road was “taken away from pedestrians.” Designated areas for pedestrian crossing were in some way marked from early on. Today’s “zebra crossings” started to spread in Europe around 1950 and they slowly reached Hungary as well. In Hungarian highway code, zebra crossings are referred to as “pedestrian crossings,” the expression itself tells all about the shift in logic that took place: the default mode of using the streets is no longer walking but driving, and the flowliness of motor traffic can only be interrupted at a few certain points by pedestrians.
After World War II and the consequent shock of the economic crisis, the leaders of Budapest first saw public transport as the foremost provider for transport needs, but from the 1960s on, the attention gradually shifted to individual motorized vehicles. Modernist urban planning promises commuters that everyone will get from each and every place to any other place quickly and conveniently by car, always. Rising numbers of car owners and of car traffic became the indicators of development. In the city, readjusted to the new car-based lifestyle, speed, and gliding, new, oversized visual signals appeared accordingly: billboards, advertisements, road and route signs, and crash barriers.
The relative amount of space occupied by cars, both in motion and while parked, is the highest among all means of transport. Thus, an expanding car traffic will swiftly use up any available space no matter the size. The 1970s and 80s was all about constantly freeing up such space—further widening roads, constructing overpasses, tunnels, and parking lots—while, in order to increase the vehicle permeability of junctions, pedestrians were relegated to underpasses by the decision makers clearly viewing the world from behind the wheel by this time without regard to the needs of the elderly, the ones with reduced mobility or sight, or of people with baby strollers.
Modern urban traffic planning took into account only one function of walking, i.e., commuting, and tried to cater to it (though usually only on a “leftover” principle), while the cultural and social functions of urban spaces deteriorated. For pedestrians, public life on the streets was repressed by worsening conditions: lack of space, noise, air pollution, and lack of road safety. It took a few decades only for cities to get from an age-old, total liberty of walking to a situation where about two-thirds of all public spaces were confiscated for the sake of car flow and car parking—the latter also affected sidewalks—in spite of the fact that according to time use studies, even as late as 2019, we only used cars in 30% of the time we spent commuting in Hungary.
As last vestiges of the old pedestrian city, or the last preserves, the promenade on Váci Street (from 1964), the Buda Castle district, and city parks remained – the latter though suffered huge cuts: the City Park (Városliget) got in its middle an expressway for the M3 highway and a huge parking lot on Felvonulási Square on the side. The green area on Roosevelt (today, Széchenyi) Square became out of reach for pedestrians (and remains so to this day). The thematic public park on the Buda side of Erzsébet Bridge inaugurated in 1903 consisting of the statue of St. Gerard on Gellért Hill, the park around the bridgehead, and Döbrentei Square, was turned into something similar to a highway road interchange after the rebuilding of the bridge (destroyed in World War II).
Motorization affected young people as well in a negative way: before, children used to spend a lot of time out on the streets, in parks, and on empty plots. In the early 1900s, a scholar collected hundreds of different games from children playing on the streets of London. When available space for playing and meeting decreased due to growing car traffic, dedicated play streets were created to make up for it: first, 30 such designated play streets were created in New York in 1914, and later on, it reached Europe as well, including Budapest, where parts of Barát, Kandó Kálmán, and Gergely Győző Streets were shut down from car traffic. Today, they are out of fashion, perhaps only socialist-era panel housing estates are the only place left where children can play “among the houses.” Playgrounds today are usually designed for the age of the kindergarten and early school years; for later school years and high schoolers are simply deprived of any possibility to enjoy public spaces. No wonder that “the kids these days” stare at the screen or the phone all day, or spend the whole day shopping in the mall.
In the last third of the twentieth century, the drawbacks of the lack of consideration for the human scale in urban planning have become evident and uncontrollable (in terms of street dangers, injuries, deaths and environmental damage). Some countries turned to new, more considerate, human-friendly, walking-centered ideas and forms of city usage and public life, which led to the creation of different traffic calming methods from the 1980s on. Their aim is to increase safety by decreasing the speed difference between road users. Basically, it is nothing new but evoking the “original state” of cities and their diverse streets. This process of going back to the roots and attempting to find a balance continues to this day.
Will cities of the future have children playing on their streets? Will we still meet at our usual meeting point on the square? Or will we just send emojis from our mobile gadgets, while our self-driving cars park at a “smart parking place”?
Solvitur ambulando—according to this phrase, sometimes ascribed to Diogenes, sometimes to St. Augustine, complicated problems are often solved by walking. And according to the Danish architect and urbanist Jan Gehl: When on foot, “there is direct contact between people and the surrounding community […] Walking is the beginning, the starting point. Man was created to walk, and all of life’s events large and small develop when we walk among other people. Life in all its diversity unfolds before us when we are on foot.”
During the writing of this article, we used Arcanum Digtheca for the review of archival newspaper articles.
Text: Ákos Bereczky | Photo editor: Virágvölgyi István | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]
The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at: https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/gyaloglas
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