Moving in amman: the Pedestrian Experience
Urban Crossroads #96

The inevitable has happened! Traffic congestion in Amman has reached new and unbearable levels. Such congestion has been in the making for about five years now, but Amman in fact had been heading towards this condition long before that, over three decades ago, when walking and public transportation gave way to the domination of the private automobile.

Any growing city where the private automobile is the main form of transportation will eventually suffer from debilitating traffic congestion problems. The number of cars will overwhelm the city’s street network, and, sooner or later, there will be more vehicles on its streets than those streets can accommodate. There is a clear limit as to how much existing streets can be widened and how many new ones can be laid out, but as long as a population continues to increase and no mode of transportation other than the private automobile is put forward, the number of automobiles will simply continue to grow indefinitely.

The solutions to this problem, in principle, are straight-forward. They definitely are not about expanding the city’s street network in a futile attempt to increase its capacity for accommodating automobiles. What is required is the complete opposite of that, which is removing automobiles from the streets. The more people use public transportation, walk, or cycle, the less they will need to use the car, and each time a person switches from driving to taking the bus, walking, or cycling to a destination, a car is taken off the city’s streets. If enough people do so, traffic-congestion problems will vanish.

Amman is promised a comprehensive bus-based public transportation system, and the first phases of this system are to be operational within a few months. It therefore is better to wait until then before assessing the status of public transportation in Amman.

One wishes that cycling would become widespread in Amman, but it will be a while before this happens as it involves putting in place the necessary cycling paths, educating drivers to accommodate cyclists, and creating a culture that accepts cycling as a mode of urban transportation.

I therefore will devote the rest of this article to the subject of walking in Amman. Amman’s record regarding this matter over the past thirty years or so simply is abysmal. This is very unfortunate because Amman should be, and in fact used to be, a walking city. Amman has mild weather. Its coldest days are not that cold and those days can be easily adapted to by putting on a warm jacket and wearing warm shoes. Its hottest days are tolerable if one is in the shade, and once the sun sets down on summer days, its climate is as ideal as can be.

Moreover, for many in Amman, so many of their daily needs are within walking distance. It is generally agreed that when a given destination is within a ten-minute walk (about one kilometer), people are willing to walk to that destination rather than take a car. In cases of mild climates, as is the situation in Amman, people are even willing to walk longer distances. This, however, depends on being able to walk safely and comfortably, an important issue that I will present in more detail below.

Let me further elaborate by providing a personal experience. Our house is located within a ten-minute walk to the commercial district of Sweifieh. The same literally applies to tens of thousands of people who live within an area defined by a one to two kilometer radius around Sweifieh. This is significant as so much of one’s daily needs is available in Sweifieh, which features supermarkets, grocery stores, restaurants, cafés, bakeries, banks, pharmacies, as well as shops that sell just about everything from clothing items to electrical and electronic equipment. There even are offices and schools located in the district or just around it, making it a place where people not only are able to shop, but also work and go to school. Both factors of proximity and density required for a healthy pedestrian life are available in Sweifieh and surrounding areas.

In a perfect world, the tens of thousands of people who live around Sweifieh should be able to meet many of their daily needs by walking rather than driving to it. Even when buying items that are too heavy or bulky to carry by hand, one can use the lightweight portable, foldable grocery carts widespread in pedestrian-oriented cities in many parts of the world.

Unfortunately, we do not live in a perfect world. I in fact usually avoid Sweifieh whenever I can. I avoid driving into it because of its traffic congestion, and I rarely walk there, in spite of its proximity to our house and in spite of the fact that I walk to destinations whenever I can. When visiting a new city, I prefer to explore it on foot, and am most comfortable whenever I am in a pedestrian-friendly city. In the case of Sweifieh, however, and for the past few years, I only walk to it from our house and back about once a year, and I only have done so as part of an urban experiment that a colleague of mine and I carry out to check if the walking experience has in anyway improved. Sadly, it hasn’t.

As I mentioned earlier, people generally are willing to walk for about ten minutes to their destination, and even longer than that if the walk is comfortable and safe. The walk to Sweifieh (and this applies to just about all other districts in Amman) is neither. The reasons for this are familiar to all. To begin with, there almost are no functional sidewalks in Amman, an issue that so many of us have commented on repeatedly. The sidewalks are full of obstacles, whether improperly planted trees, parked cars, poorly paved surfaces, accumulated building debris, uncompleted construction work, or garbage containers (the deteriorating situation with garage collection in Amman, which used to be a source of pride for the city, is the subject for another article).

The sidewalks also are often very high. One of the sidewalks along the way between our house and Sweifieh is literally half a meter above street level. In some cases, there simply is no sidewalk, and instead one has to walk on unpaved areas littered with garbage and building debris. Trying to walk along Amman’s sidewalks basically is an exercise in navigating an obstacle course. One therefore is usually left with no choice but to walk on the street itself. Here, one can only pray that no reckless drivers (and there is no shortage of them in Amman) happen to be driving along that street.

Sweifieh is surrounded by a set of traffic arteries characterized by heavy and fast traffic. Luckily, there is a pedestrian bridge along the walking path from our house to Sweifieh that crosses over the relevant artery. These bridges are not ideal as one needs to climb up and down the equivalent of two stories each way to use them (making them inaccessible to people with physical disabilities, but then so are Amman’s sidewalks). They still are preferable to having to go through the life-threatening experience of crossing the street itself and navigating its fast traffic. Using the bridge remains far from pleasant as it doesn’t seem to have ever been cleaned, so one needs to walk through the accumulated litter that its users have been throwing on its floor. After descending the bridge, we proceed on what barely passes as a sidewalk and cross a busy street to finally reach the comfort, safety, and pleasantness of Wakalat Street, one of the very few places in Amman from which cars have been banished. As we complete half of our pedestrian journey (we still have to walk back from Sweifieh), we already have decided that this is an adventure we do not wish to repeat more than once a year.

There really is no excuse for Amman to be that way. As children in Amman, we walked everywhere, but over the years, walking in Amman has become increasingly difficult, uncomfortable, and unsafe. What we have here is a missed opportunity. Many of the basic ingredients for a pedestrian-friendly city, including proximity between pedestrian and non-pedestrian uses, adequate density, and a pleasant climate, already are in place in Amman. Other ingredients, however, such as functional and comfortable sidewalks as well as streets that can be crossed safely, are missing.

Not too long ago, and after a long walk in Amman, I asked an architect and friend visiting the city from abroad as to what he believes is the single most important positive characteristic that a city should possess. Without hesitation, his answer was “pedestrian accessibility.” That was exactly the answer I also had in mind. Such accessibility Amman unfortunately has completely lost.

Mohammad al-Asad

September 03, 2009