Merida Mexico: Beauty and the Beast

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Can a city be beautiful and harsh on pedestrians at the same time?  Before visiting Merida I would have said no.  Any city that is beautiful, must be first and foremost a good walking City.  
The colonial architecture is amazing. Merida was  founded on the site of Mayan temple in the early 16th century by Spanish Conquistadors.   The historic center is crossed by an almost perfect grid of one way streets.  The city parks are beautifully landscaped, and draw residents and visitors alike for an awesome people-watching experience.

At some point in the City’s history, the City made a decision to maximize the road space devoted to cars and minimize sidewalk widths.  This has created an awful pedestrian environment on almost all of the streets in the historic center.  In some places there is less than 2 feet for a pedestrian to walk.  This is coupled with the almost perfectly straight mostly one-way gridded streets that allow cars to get up to 40 or 50KM between lights.  

In addition to the speeding traffic whizzing within inches of the many pedestrians, a good percentage of the cars and busses in the City are poorly maintained.  This creates a noxious mix of  air and noise pollution.  This leads to the strange mix of a terrible pedestrian environment and a beautiful city.  

There are some fairly easy fixes to the problem that could improve the situation for pedestrians radically.  This would involve the City reclassifying some of the streets as pedestrian priority (PP) streets.  In a PP street, the car would be the guest and would be expected to defer to pedestrians walking on them, just as the pedestrian now to defers to the car on almost all streets in Merida Center now.

I did find one cross alley in Merida has been closed to cars.   Cars could possibly use this space, but the message would be “this is pedestrian street”.
As seen above Merida does have experience with building excellent pedestrian environments.   

Furthermore, in the short term, could do many low cost treatments to slow traffic and create shared PP streets.  These include making some of the current one way streets two way and even having  opposing one way streets that force drivers to turn instead of being able to go straight.  Essentially the PP streets would break up connectivity for cars while maintaining connections for pedestrians and bicyclists. Residents and businesses would be able to access the streets with cars for loading and parking, but their speeds would be low.

Important design features would be needed to slow traffic.  Planting trees in the street would do much to slow traffic and bring much needed shade to the streets of Merida.  Bike lanes also narrow travel lanes and slow traffic.  Furthermore businesses could be encouraged to move seating in to the street (something Merida is very familiar with when they completely close some downtown streets).   Finally in residential children could be encouraged to play on pedestrian oriented streets by including child-friendly element in the design of the streets.

There’s an element of social justice too.  Enrique Penalosa makes this point well in his TED talk on Bogota’s success:
There are some tools that could be used to alleviate traffic during peak times.  Currently buses move far more people in Merida than cars.  More use buses could be encouraged by dedicating  the right hand lane of two-lane streets for exclusive use of buses.  Having all the buses in one lane would rationalize the traffic and reward bus riders with a faster trip.  With faster trips by bus, more car drivers might be willing to switch to the bus.  Furthermore, with comfortable walking corridors downtown, more people might be willing to walk further from their parking spaces to their destinations.  Also some would choose to live in the city center and closer to work instead of fleeing to the quieter suburbs.

Merida is an amazing town. If the streets were friendly to pedestrians it would really be a world class city.

About mark

Urban Planner

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