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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

It’s time to quit hating on pedways

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Two-story pedway spanning 101 Ave between the east and west sides of the Edmonton City Centre Mall. Photo Credit: Darren Kirby, 2009.

Pedways have been built in cities around the world for the same reason: weather. Most, in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, remove people from heat, humidity or rain. In Edmonton, where our ponds remain rock-solid for months, they take us out of cold and snow. But what all of these weather-sheltered walkways do not remove from their cities, and this includes Edmonton, is vibrance. Believe it or not, pedways add to it.

Many Edmontonians hate pedways. Vocally. That’s especially true now, given that a $40 million example of one is being proposed, to connect the Galleria development to the LRT. “I hate pedways,” Councillor Scott McKeen told the Edmonton Journal recently. “I think they steal vibrancy from the public realm. Busy sidewalks are what we need.” The City’s bureaucracy seems to agree. “Pedways are not an asset to walkability if we’re trying to make the streets a more vital place,” said one official, in a separate Edmonton Journal article.

This pedway poo-pooing is not surprising. Reflexive analysis sees a pedway as an inside space rather than the outside street, and thus, it seems to reason, anyone walking in one is not adding to street ‘vibrance.’ But pedways are being pulled into a false dichotomy, made out as a villain, a cause for Edmonton’s milquetoast downtown streets. If we believe our officials, the formula is simple: add pedways, remove vibrance, and vice versa. But I say phooey to that. If you want your culprit for dead streets, look to poor street design caused by decades of city planning bending to the whims of the automobile. And if you want to improve those streets in Edmonton, I’ll stand up and say it: look to pedways.

For a snapshot of how pedways can add vibrance, let’s look to Hong Kong. The port city has more pedways than some countries have people, yet its streets still burble with humanity. How can that be if pedways are so bad for vibrance? The answer is good pedway design. Hong Kong’s pedways are integrated with its outside streets and its many internal and external transit systems. Indeed, these pedways are part of its overall transportation network. The city’s outlying suburbs are connected to the dense commercial core by its LRT; that LRT, in turn, has stations, which are all linked to streets above, as well as to the ubiquitous malls, by pedways. These pedways feature markets, restaurants and boutiques—you can buy just about everything in a Hong Kong pedway, from an octopus to a Rolex. For this reason Hong Kong’s pedways and its streets are pretty much the same. Both bustle with pedestrians talking, moving, and buying and selling things. The pedways just happen to function without cars and rain.

Yee Wo Street Skyway, Hong Kong. Photo Credit: RoxRox via Creative Commons
Yee Wo Street Skyway, Hong Kong. Photo Credit: RoxRox via Creative Commons

Still, pedways—as Edmontonians know them—deserve to be hated. Ours are easy to get lost in. They are often ugly. Their locations are almost always illogical or confounding. Many of those controlled by private interests, which is a lot of them, keep hours worse than our banks. Somehow, many are crowded during the day and dangerously empty at night. Few feel connected or direct. Fewer still offer anything to do in them, other than walk through, and quickly. But while many of our pedways are guilty of these crimes, it’s when we convict them of killing our downtown street vibrance that we ought to wake up.

Let’s be frank: if we removed Edmonton’s pedways we would not add people into our downtown and onto its streets. Indeed, many of our pedways are already so unenjoyable to walk and so easy to get lost within that they nearly force us out of them anyway. But those that do work, and there are some—think of those connecting to LRT stations downtown, and especially those that offer views to the outside (and yes, I’m looking at you, person standing comfortably in line at Tim Hortons while chatting with friends, in a pedway in City Centre Mall)—are strong reasons that downtown Edmonton retains the small amounts of street vibrance that it has, especially during the coldest of its winter days.

Here’s the forgotten fact about vibrance, pedways and Edmonton: someone in a pedway is someone on their feet. As in a pedestrian. A person not in a car. And such a person is a very, very important thing for Edmonton as it tries to build downtown vibrance, regardless of what the arena pushers might believe. The journey will start and end from a street. Thinking of a pedway like this, as a pedestrian walkway that’s sheltered from the elements, allows us to see some other important things, too. Pedways are most often pedestrian connections to Edmonton’s LRT network, which is built with the purpose of moving pedestrians about and thus removing our need to drive to come downtown or to sports arenas or other amenities. So, as we grow our LRT network and enhance its connectivity to the suburbs and the core—in an attempt to reduce the astronomical percentage of urban trips we still make with cars—we will undoubtedly build more pedways. Indeed, as part of their plans, the Galleria and the arena both have pedways connecting them to LRT stations, commercial areas and, ultimately, the street. But if we continue hating pedways while also building more of them we could miss a big opportunity. That opportunity is to link these transportation networks together, make them work as a single network and thus to get the most from our investment.

What we need most is to turn our frustration with downtown vibrance away from the scapegoats and onto our streets. The real culprit for our lame streets is the car—or, specifically, streets designed for them to the near exclusion of other users. If people do not like walking on your streets they won’t. It’s as simple as that.

Tim Querengesser is a journalist and the head of The Edmonton Wayfinding Project.

Interior of Pacific Place, Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Dosdldyhai via Creative Commons
Interior of Pacific Place, Queensway, Admiralty, Hong Kong. Photo Credit: Dosdldyhai via Creative Commons



  1. I’m sorry but you can’t compare Hong Kong and Edmonton and try to draw some parallels between the two cities’ pedway/pedestrian culture. Hong Kong is an incredibly dense and compact city. Many of its residents live in tall apartment buildings, not suburban detached houses. Hong Kong has about 7 million people, whereas Edmonton has 1 million. Hong Kong has the highest rate of public transit use in the world with 90% of trips being on public transit. Edmonton’s transit ridership pales in comparison to that. The important poing here is that Hong Kong’s 7 million people are walking to and from transit stations.

    Dense cities almost always have a strong walking culture, simply because it is the most convenient way to get to and from where you are going (whether its a neighborhood store or a transit station).

    Installing pedways in Hong Kong would have a negligible impact on its streetlife. There are 7 million people in Hong Kong, with 90% of these people taking public transportation. The vibrancy of their streets has been long established, as the city’s density promotes a pedestrian culture. I do agree with you that the lack of pedestrians in Edmonton’s downtown core is due to the legacy of auto-oriented planning and building in the suburbs, but it simply does not make sense to be comparing Hong Kong and Edmonton.

    Hong Kong doesn’t face the same issues Edmonton does in terms of enticing people to take up residency downtown. Because of Hong Kong’s density, population size and the scale of the city, people are walking. Edmonton on the other hand is trying to encourage people to be using the sidewalks, so it is certainly possible that pedways will remove people from the streets. If there were more residents living in downtown Edmonton, I would say that pedways wouldn’t be harmful to street life, but the density simply isn’t there yet.

  2. I agree, Scott — comparing Hong Kong and Edmonton is dubious and that is not the aim of this argument. What I wanted to compare is the design and thinking that has gone into Hong Kong’s pedways versus the lack of such things in Edmonton.

    I also agree dense cities almost always have strong walking cultures, but I disagree with the implication that this is so because it’s the easiest way to get around. Density makes getting around by car quite difficult, but it also can make getting around by foot highly enjoyable and engaging — if you design streets well. And this is the part that applies to Edmonton. If we don’t put more thinking and effort into designing the parts of our infrastructure that pedestrians experience, is it any wonder that we lack pedestrians and ultimately downtown ‘vibrance’?
    Why do pedways, in your view, remove people from streets? I see them adding people to streets in the winter. If there was more to do in them and they worked better, maybe even more people would take to their feet and use a pedway to move from point to point downtown, rather than driving. And I think the argument that pedways remove people from streets is empty, anyway. Streets remove people from streets. Make a great street and people will walk on it. Don’t blame pedways for ruining the street. Blame bad, car-centric design.

  3. Hi Tim,

    I agree with you that urban design shapes whether or not walking is a pleasant experience. Arguably in North America, walking concerns have been neglected for the last half century and Edmonton has is not unique in this respect. The automobile has shaped Edmonton’s planning and land use plans for far too long.

    My concern is that without residential density to support a pedestrian presence downtown, pedways will just further serve to keep people off the sidewalks. Pedways are not inherently horrible urban design, I just think that until Edmonton sees greater residential density downtown we should not embrace them.

    You are absolutely right that we can address these issues through pedestrian oriented urban design, but Edmonton still lacks a strong pedestrian presence downtown and a sophisticated pedway network will further serve to keep people off the streets. In fact, it reinforces the idea that walking outside is inconvenient and an unpleasant experience.

    Also, I think we have to distinguish between subway connecting pedways and overhead street pedways. Subway pedways are part of a city’s underground transit network. Edmonton’s transport system is not as complicated as large cities like Chicago, NYC, etc. Edmontonians don’t have to change subway lines. I admit it is quicker, convenient and more pleasurable to stay underground to transfer subway lines. In fact, in Vancouver transferring from Granville stop (millennium line) to City Center ( Canada line) is very inconvenient because of the lack of foresight in planning the underground pedway network. Pedways certainly do have their advantages in certain contexts, I just don’t think Edmonton has reached the point yet where it requires a sophisticated pedway network. Edmonton simply needs more people on its sidewalks and strategic urban design which makes outdoor walking more pleasant.

    Tim, I do appreciate that you are facilitating dialogue about bettering Edmonton and working to improve the downtown and it is fine for us to disagree about these nuances in urban design. What’s important here is that people are beginning to consider the pedestrian in Edmonton, rather than the car.

  4. Today is a perfect example of my argument. It’s cold outside and I had a meeting about five blocks from my office. I walked, since I walk everywhere, but I know that others in my office drove. When I returned to the office, I used the pedway to stay warm, and I bought a snack. There’s street interaction that wouldn’t have happened had I just gone with my co-workers from one parkade to another. And that’s why pedways don’t take people off streets in my opinion.

  5. Rather than viewing the issue as an either-or dilemma, perhaps we should explore options where shops and other uses cater to the pedestrian traffic both along the pedways and the streets. Edmonton sure is tough to walk outside during the winter months, but during the summer months people are more willing to enjoy the fresh air and the sun outside.

    Having flexible and attractive storefronts, in addition to more people living in the Downtown area, is the key to a rejuvenated Edmonton centre core.

  6. That’s exactly what I’m arguing, Alexander. It isn’t a zero sum game. And to blame the lack of vitality of a street on a pedway is to move the blame from the real reason — the street itself.

  7. It’s not just street vitality that is affected by overhanging structures like these.

    Even the lovely Hong Kong pedways pictured above blot out the street line, greenery in the distance, and many of the far-off buildings. You cannot appreciate the street’s overall shape and feel. Ugliness also affects street vitality in negative ways because it makes it less pleasant to visit the city center, and scares off visitors who aren’t used to this kind of self-inflicted blight.

  8. Qatzel, that is precisely one of my concerns with pedways is how it interacts with the street (the other is price). I think we can all agree that there shouldn’t be pedways blocking view of the Alberta Legislature or prominent landmarks. Similarly, the experience of walking underneath a pedway needs to be improved as well.

    However, there is always the underground option and who is to say that a pedway cannot function as a visually appealing focus point for a street?

  9. As a Downtown resident, I am very much in favour of the Pedway, and it’s expansion/integration into the downtown. Yes, the Pedway is horrendous now, but with forethought, and cooperation among the various landowners in the downtown it could be improved, without hurting what little street life there is.

    As a Resident downtown I do try to walk everywhere, but Downtown Edmonton does not have short blocks going south to north, eliminating a lot of short cuts or rather possible ways to reach my destination. The Pedway sometimes is able to shorten my trips, but it is usually a dismal walk down down white, walled hallways, following twists and turns through more barren hallways.
    To improve the Pedway, it needs stores, services, and most importantly more connections to the street; MORE connections to the street will help people cut across blocks and help disperse people in the core (instead of pedestrians only being concentrated at what few intersections there are downtown, there could be another “door of activity” mid-block, for people to enter or exit a street).

    The street life downtown will not get better though until there are smaller retail spaces on the ground floor of buildings; the more stores, with a presence on the street (doors, “doors of activity), will mean more reasons for people to use that street. Currently if you look at many streets in the downtown core…they may have 6 entrances to buildings in each block…. in healthy streets with street life you would see at least triple the amount of entrances to buildings in the same area of the core blocks (along with more connections mid-block).

  10. Ok, Calgarian here. And also lived and biked in Vancouver (8yrs.) and Toronto (20+ years).

    Calgary has their pedways which we call the plus-15 system. Yes, I most definitely they make downtown ugly with shadow overhangs and problem of icicles forming and dropping down below..on pedestrians.

    plus-15 system is closed on weekends. So really it’s limited. I’m not how on earth Calgary can overcome this architectural feature which is some areas in the winter. Hmm.. would some trees, sculpture help below. Street vibrancy does require people walking and cycling about outside. The problem attention had been paid to the pedways to the exclusion until recent effort to start widening some street sidewalks, etc.