Fixing Sweifieh
Urban Crossroads #31

Most agree that a district such as Sweifieh suffers from problems such as traffic congestion, inadequate pedestrian zones, chaotic parking patterns, and a lack of separation between pedestrian and vehicular movement. Resolving these problems poses a serious challenge.

Any effective solution for Sweifieh will depend on a clear separation between pedestrian and vehicular movement. This primarily means that adequate, comfortable and safe car-free paths and areas reserved for pedestrians need to be provided. Existing sidewalks need to be rehabilitated. Continuity needs to be ensured along sidewalk stretches so that they are free of sudden changes in level. The sidewalks need to be at a comfortable height from the street, and ramps should be put in place to connect the streets and sidewalks for people with movement impairments. Trees should be planted only along wide sidewalks so as not to hinder pedestrian movement. Ideally, these should be water-conserving canopy trees that provide shade and allow people to comfortably walk beneath them.

A main challenge for pedestrians anywhere is crossing streets. This is where pedestrian and vehicular movement intersect, often resulting in uncomfortable and even unsafe experiences for pedestrians, specially along streets that have to handle high levels of traffic. Ramped pedestrian bridges and tunnels are ideal solutions since they completely separate pedestrian movement from vehicular traffic. However, these are complicated and expensive to construct. They also require considerable space since accepted standards require 12 meters of ramp length for every meter of ramp height. Another option is to use traffic lights to regulate the movement of vehicular traffic and allow pedestrians to cross safely. In this case, crossing zones should be clearly marked, and their paving might be different than the street asphalt, as with cobblestone or interlocking paving units, preferably the same as those used for the sidewalks.

Parking in the area will need to be regulated. The prevailing situation of more or less allowing vehicles to park wherever they please (often on sidewalks) and in whichever way they please (at every imaginable angle and distance in relation to the sidewalk) simply cannot be allowed to continue. There are areas in Sweifieh where parking should be prohibited. In some cases, parking may be allowed at times when traffic is light, as on Friday mornings. Also, when parking is allowed, the specific boundaries within which each vehicle is to park should be marked clearly. Parking meters may be used to limit the number of parked vehicles in areas where parking space is limited and under high demand. Off-street parking solutions also need to be provided. These might include parking lots or structures located at the entrances of Sweifieh. Providing these may prove to be a challenge, however, since land prices in Sweifieh are very high. Cost-effective solutions will need to be developed, such as incorporating commercial outlets within such parking structures, and providing tax incentives for owners of parking lots and structures.

A number of the streets of Sweifieh should be converted into exclusively pedestrian areas. This will make it a far more appealing area of Amman that is safe for pedestrians. However, attempts at pedestrianizing streets in Amman usually are resisted by a number of stakeholders, specially shop owners. They are under the impression that prohibiting pedestrian traffic along their shops will be bad for business. In fact, the "drive-through" mentality seems to predominate in Amman, and many believe that one always should be able to park immediately next to any shop he or she is visiting. It therefore is common in Amman to find vehicles double-parked in front of a shop even though parking spaces may be found only a few meters away from that shop. This is an attitude that has to come to an end. Interestingly enough, Ammanis accept the fact that one cannot park wherever one wants in the downtown area, and therefore are willing to do considerable walking there. Downtown Amman is the city's most pedestrian-friendly area and is pleasant to walk though even though it is overcrowded much of the time, and some of its areas have become quite run down over the years.

There are real practical problems that need to be addressed when transforming a vehicular traffic street into a pedestrian zone. If vehicular traffic is not allowed in a certain street, then alternate routes capable of accommodating the diverted traffic need to be put forward. Pedestrian zones also should allow access for delivery and emergency vehicles (fire trucks and ambulances). Therefore, delivery vehicles would need to be allowed to enter pedestrian streets at certain times, such as late at night or early in the morning. Also, there needs to be a careful selection process regarding which streets would accommodate vehicles and which streets would be devoted to pedestrians in a manner that locates pedestrian streets immediately next to vehicular ones.

All this means that there is a need to monitor and analyze patterns of movement and parking of vehicles going in, out of, and through Sweifieh, and also of pedestrian activity in it. This should be carried out at different times of the year, week, and day.

Sweifeih has the potential of being a very pleasant shopping district of Amman. It has a wide variety of commercial outlets that cater to different needs, tastes, and budgets. Amman's weather is pleasant during much of the time, and Sweifieh should be an area where one may walk and shop comfortably, or socialize in restaurants or cafés.

Transforming Sweifieh requires extensive sustainable interventions and diligent follow-up. Some of the interventions would affect the physical makeup of its streets and sidewalks. Other interventions would be of a regulatory nature. There are no magical solutions. Also, it will be very difficult to address such a relatively large area all at once. One approach is to move ahead slowly and gradually. One would begin with a small area and treat it as a pilot project. With time, as solutions are tested, developed, and fine-tuned in the pilot area, they would be expanded to include additional areas in the district. Eventually, we finally might have a district in the newer parts of Amman that truly supports a rich and diverse urban life.

Mohammad al-Asad

January 13, 2005