The point of [the] social life of city sidewalks is precisely that they are public. They bring together people who do not know each other in an intimate, private social fashion and in most cases do not care to know each other in that fashion.
-Jane Jacobs, "The uses of sidewalks: contact", The Death and Live of Great American Cities
Let's talk about sidewalks. Specifically, let's talk about proper uses of sidewalks. And since Google defines a sidewalk as "a paved path for pedestrians at the side of a road," I don't consider it unreasonable to expect them to be car-free spaces. I mean, is it not enough that cars already take up so much valuable urban space, create physical barriers, and act as loud, noxious highways, leaving pedestrians crammed on a strip of concrete no wider than a pie crust?
In Ukraine, I got really frustrated as a pedestrian and cyclist, as it was impossible to escape the fact that cars rule here. They park wherever and however they please, their drivers barreling through crosswalks despite pedestrians having a green light. Especially in Kiev, sidewalks are in rough shape with no curb cuts or protected bike lanes, poor lighting makes for low visibility, and wide sidewalks are synonymous with parking spaces. (While I have seen sidewalk parking in many countries, it seemed especially bad in Ukraine.) Meanwhile, it is the responsibility of anyone not in a car to cross the road safely, and at most major intersections people must navigate "underground crosswalks" (you can thank Soviet urban planning for that lovely touch) that are part pedestrian tunnels part tacky malls. It's not the most efficient means of navigating the city, and it's definitely not ideal for people with disabilities, strollers, roller bags, or bikes, but it looks like these odd underground spaces aren't going anywhere for now.
In Kiev, I saw something that made my heart sink: the lifeless body of a young man, sprawled out on the middle of the road. Judging by the two people standing over him, eyes anxiously scanning the street for the ambulance, the guy had made a dash across the four-lane road near the train station in the dark... with devastating consequences. "Meh, it's a busy road," my taxi driver said before speeding up after cautiously passing the body. He had already moved on, but I don't think I ever will.
As Kiev was destroyed after World War II, the Soviet government rebuilt it as an ideal capital city per communist planning theories of the time. Imposing, stiff buildings flank wide, car-filled boulevards; planners during this era were eager to embrace the modern marvel of the vehicle, and seventy years later the city is suffocating under the excess of cars on the streets. There is no cozy car-free old town in Kiev, the closest contender being the curious is-it-or-isn't-it-old Vozdvizhenka, so to see that city planners had blocked off sections of historic Podil for bike/ped traffic was a welcome sight. Families fanned out across double yellow lines, kids had space to ride their scooters in peace, people sitting in cafes had front row seats for people-watching. It's unclear if this guerrilla car-free space is permanent or not, but its popularity suggests that people-oriented public spaces are sorely needed in Kiev. (It is worth noting that busy Khreschatyk Street by people-packed Independence Square was closed to cars one sunny Saturday I was in Kiev, and tons of people were enjoying the extra city space.)
Bike lanes, protected or not, were rare as hen's teeth in Kiev. But that didn't stop me from renting a bike from a random back alley, paying $6 a day for the pleasure of riding a cheap kid's bike with back pedal brakes. I rode across some bridges -- one made for cyclists and pedestrians, the others not so much -- and can definitively say that Kiev is not a cycling city. After dodging heavy traffic and lugging it up and down the underground crosswalks, I was more than ready to return the bike.
A few more photos from my bike adventure...
Lviv was much more bike/ped friendly than Kiev, with surprisingly decent cycling facilities. The city streets were still overrun with cars and pedestrians had to be just as cautious of bad drivers, but there was the car-free historic city center and better maintained sidewalks to appreciate. Since I purchased a SIM card in Ukraine, I was able to sign up for the city's Nextbike bikeshare service and I cycled around the city, enjoying lovely parks and residential areas outside of the city center for a few dollars a day.