Culture | What does car-free mean?

McGill takes steps to emulate global promotion of the pedestrian

I n the last decade, environmentalism has emerged as a characteristic that will define 21st-century business, design, and lifestyle. City planners the world over are developing ways to promote cooperative living environments that diminish reliance on automobiles in favor of amiable and responsible transportation.

After five years of planning and consultation, McGill’s vision for “car-free campus” has become reality. The closing of McTavish on May 28 signalled the realization of an enclosed and pedestrian-dominated lower campus. The effectiveness of the McGill Green Project in achieving premier urban planning goals of cohabitation however, comes in to question when we compare results with cities and design philosophies elsewhere.

Urban planners, like many university students, often refer to Amsterdam – not because of its lax drug policies but due to its seamless integration of high densities of pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists. Many other Dutch towns now employ philosophies of “shared space,” which aim to desegregate cars from human activity and revive pedestrian-friendly towns that pre-dated World War II. Drachten and Makkinga forgo signs, streetlights, and traditional methods of traffic control in order to promote users’ awareness of their surroundings. This has resulted in lower average speeds and fewer accidents. Shared-space areas have been cropping up all over the world in the past decade with particular success in European cities like Reykjavik, Bucharest, and Berlin; new projects are currently underway in New Zealand, Toronto, and countless American cities.

McGill, however, fails to fully meet criteria for shared space. New protocol requires cyclists to walk bikes on campus and does not allow for cars, with exceptions for emergency vehicles and delivery trucks between 7 and 11 a.m.

In an open forum last Thursday, frustrated cyclists offered alternatives to the policy that would enable them to coexist with pedestrians, namely separated bike paths. While segregation of bikers, walkers, and cars into different lanes functions somewhat effectively throughout Montreal, McGill’s administration asserted that paths on campus were unsafe and unviable.

Some criticize the rules’ inauguration as a confirmation of McGill as an ivory tower, vastly removed from the Montreal community that contributes to the school’s unique urban identity. David Covo, McGill professor and director of the School of Architecture until 2007, disagrees, claiming that McGill is still widely accessible to the public despite the requirement to dismount.

“We want the campus to be seen as an extension of our living rooms, not our garages,” muses Covo. “There is the idea that when you enter campus, you acknowledge a social contract of security.”

The change is reminiscent of New Pedestrianism, an urban planning concept that explicitly promotes walkers, cyclists, and celebration of the natural features of implicated areas. Although McGill hasn’t fully incorporated bicycles, this philosophy is more applicable to the new vision of campus than shared space. The University of California at Irvine’s equivalently-sized walk-bike zone and Copenhagen’s Strøget – the first pedestrian-only area in Europe – set precedents for McGill.

In the future, Covo predicts cooperative attitudes and further evolution of campus as a pedestrian priority zone, involving a departure from asphalt and the implementation of textured surfaces to slow people and improve the aesthetic. He emphasizes the removal of curbs, which create unnecessary distinction between roadways and walkways; the additions of James Square by the Milton Gates and planters straddling the boundaries of the main Roddick Gates walkway demonstrate substantive progress.

It is important to remember that aforementioned European examples’ successes are due to a pre-existing walking culture established over generations. Here at McGill, it will take time to develop ideal relationships and physical features, but students’ sprawl already indicates that they have taken to the streets and begun to claim campus as their own.