Professor Alan Pound
18 December 2017
Walkability and Public Transportation
How should we build our cities? That’s probably a question many haven’t thought about very much, if at all, but the answers effect everyone, every day. One of the biggest tenets of modern urban planning is walkability. That is, simply, how easily walkable an area is and, in turn, how car-dependent those who live there need to be. First, some background and context on the concept of walkability. Then, how can walkability be implemented and/or improved in areas it is lacking. Lastly, I will look at some ideas of those opposed to walkability and make three main arguments for the advocation of a shift in land use that promotes walkability; wealth/economy, health, and sustainability.
Urban planner, and author, Jeff Speck lays out in his book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time the General Theory of Walkability. There are four main conditions that must be met for people to favor walking over driving in an area. Each of these conditions work together, and without them all in harmony the whole thing falls apart. First, the walk must be useful. Most necessities for daily life must be close by and organized in a way that they are accessible by walking, or otherwise easily accessible by competent public transit services. Second, the walk must be safe. For a walk to be safe streets need to be designed primarily for the pedestrian, not the automobile. Third, the walk must be comfortable. This states that the urban landscape should be designed as an “urban living room,” as Speck puts it. Large and barren open spaces, like street facing parking lots, should be avoided at all costs. Lastly, the walk must be interesting, lined with unique buildings and with signs of humanity abound (Speck 11).
The ideas of walkability are not new. Before the wide spread use of the automobile it was a necessity that environments be built to serve the pedestrian. Around the turn of the 20th century, cities in the United States were some of the most walkable and home to one of the best public transit systems in the world. Approximately 11,000 miles of street car track were active throughout the country. Today, combining every street car, subway, light rail, and commuter rail system in the country only equals ~5,500 miles of track, with almost six times the population to serve (Wendover, “Public Transportation”). The end of World War II brought the affordable automobile to the masses. Urban design choices of many cities around the world, specifically those in North America, shifted away from pedestrian centered development and towards auto-oriented development. This has led to many cities where not owning a car is all but impossible; Phoenix, Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, and Orlando are all prime examples. This auto-orientation of North American cities is exacerbated local zoning laws.
As opposed to most cities in Europe, most cities in North America require strict separation of uses and have minimum parking requirements, based on the size and type of buildings, in their zoning codes. Housing next to other housing, shopping next to other shopping, offices next to other offices, etc. The latter two requiring large parking lots by law in many cities. This has led to those in North America, on average, needing to travel further distances for the same services compared to their European counterparts (Wendover, “Public Transportation”). On the surface these parking requirements sound nice. Who doesn’t enjoy being able to park directly next to their destination for free/very low cost? The problem is that the requirements are hugely excessive, more on that later, though.
Before continuing further, a quick primer on induced demand, as one of the most common arguments by the general public to solve traffic (which is part of the argument for walkability as well) is to just make the roads bigger or build new roads. This concept is sometimes counterintuitive and even professionals seem to ignore it at times. The basic premise is that building more lanes on a roadway will not reduce congestion, and in some cases, will make the problem worse. That is because congestion is the biggest reason for people to decide not to drive, especially in North America where the gasoline tax is much lower compared to other developed countries. It varies by state, but on average the gasoline tax in the United States was $0.53/gallon in 2013. Canada is the next closest at $1.25/gallon but that is still slightly below half that of the 34 country OECD, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, average of $2.62/gallon (Pomerleau 2015). A study completed in 2004 found that, on average, increasing lane miles by 10% results in an immediate increase of 4% in vehicle miles traveled which will almost always increase to 10% (all of the new capacity) within a few years. The Texas Transport Institute also found that United States metropolitan areas that heavily invested in raising road capacity fared no better in terms of traffic congestion than metropolitan areas that did not (Speck 82-83). A real world example of these effects can be seen from the expansion of the Katy Freeway in Houston, one of the cities mentioned above for being infamously auto-dependent. The state of Texas spent $2.8 billion for expansion, making it the widest freeway in the world (up to 28 lanes in some places!) with the hopes of easing congestion and lowering travel times. In the 3 years following the completion of the project (2011-2014) travel times on the 28 mile stretch from downtown Houston to the far-flung suburb of Katy increased from 41 to 64 minutes (Wendover, “How to Fix Traffic”).
So, how can these ideas of walkability be implemented in newly designed and already existing areas? Going deeper into Jeff Specks Theory of Walkability mentioned before, he split those four ideas further down into the Ten Steps of Walkability. Under ‘the useful walk’ Speck lists four steps; put cars in their place, mix the uses, get the parking right, and let transit work. Putting cars in their place, to start, does not in any way mean banning cars outright. Cars are very useful tools to our society, and they will in all likelihood continue to be for the foreseeable future. What we do need to do is lower the dependency most Americans have for the car (Speck 75). A combination of removing large freeways in urban centers and/or other congestion controls (limiting access at peak times or congestion pricing) are the two biggest parts of putting cars in their place. As mentioned before, building more roads doesn’t solve issues because of induced demand. This phenomenon also works in reverse, to an extent, and has been used in cities across the world, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Stockholm to name a few (Speck 94-101, Wendover, “How to Fix Traffic”). The impacts of ramp meters on the highways in Minneapolis/St. Paul can be seen in figure 1.
Figure 1 – Data Source: Minnesota DOT
Next, mixing the uses is the most important aspect of the useful walk. If there is nothing nearby it doesn’t matter how safe or interesting a walk is, no one is going to take that walk. The Walk Score (which can be seen on walkscore.com for places across the globe) of an area indicates how mixed use an area is. Being able to walk to things like the store, school, work, and the homes people who are of different wealth levels than yourself within a 10-minute walk all contribute to an area’s Walk Score (Yuttho 2017). The last of those is especially important as people of different wealth levels will use the streets in different ways and at different times of the day. Keeping the streets active with pedestrians at all times is important to making the street an inviting and safe environment (Speck 109).
The third step is getting the parking right. To begin, back to mandatory minimum parking requirements as mentioned earlier. Parking, including free parking, is extremely expensive. As parking is required by law on new constructions in many cities those costs get passed on to all consumers as higher prices for groceries, more expensive dinners at restaurants, or higher rents in apartment complexes, even if they don’t use those parking structures. All of this ‘free’ parking further incentivizes driving and undermines the use, or expansion, of transit systems or walking (Speck 118). Lowering, or completely removing, these mandatory parking minimums will not ban the construction of parking lots, but rather shift their construction into the free market and limit the cost of parking strictly to those who choose to use it. Also, further incentivizing development patterns suitable for walkability (Speck 128).
The last step of the useful walk is to let transit work. There are two main types of public transit systems; nodal, to connect several walkable areas, and linear, to make already existing walkable areas larger. Cities don’t need to be big to take advantage of transit and the goal of cities should be to use these types of transit to create a mesh of walkable areas that reaches as much of the population as possible (Speck 150). In an ideal situation, easy links other cities or regions would also exist, similar to what can be seen in some parts of Europe.
Next are the steps to the safe walk; protect the pedestrian and welcome bikes. Protecting the pedestrian is paramount to walkability. The main factors to this are smaller block sizes, narrower streets, lower speeds, and fewer/more simple traffic signals. Most of these factors work together; smaller blocks require more streets, having more streets allows for narrower streets, and narrower streets entice drivers to drive more slowly (unlike trying to force a 25mph speed limit on a wide 4-lane road). The last factor is specifically to prioritize pedestrians, less and more simple signals make drivers more cautious, which will make them slow down. This, in turn, makes everything safer for everyone (Speck 163-188). Shared spaces, while not something that works everywhere, take this idea to the extreme by completely removing all signals and signs (Mars, Roman, et.al 2017). Welcoming bikes on to the streets is also a necessity as it gives everyone one more choice to make in place of driving. On top of that, cycling is one of the most efficient and sustainable modes of transport around. With the same amount of energy, a bike can take you three times as far as just your feet (Speck 190).
The next two steps, shape the spaces and plant trees, fulfill part three of the General Theory of Walkability, the comfortable walk. Shaping spaces looks upon evolutionary psychology and how all animals seek two things in the wild; prospect, which allows an animal to see its prey and predators, and refuge, which allows an animal to know it is protected. From the human perspective this means a place where distant views and physical enclosure are both present (Speck 213-214). This translates into wall to wall style construction. This means buildings that have little or no room between then as seen across towns in Europe or downtowns of American small towns. On top of this wider spaces require taller buildings to keep that same feeling. The key ratio for building height:street/square width is between 1:1 and 6:1. Too short of buildings can leave us feeling exposed while buildings that are too tall can feel over powering (Speck 218). Step eight, plant trees, continues on this idea of shaping spaces, as well as also aiding in safety. Roadside trees make things safer for pedestrians because, similar to narrow streets, they tend to make drivers slow down and be more cautious thus reducing the severity and frequency of incidents. A study in Toronto found that the presence of street side vertical objects (like trees) reduced crashes in between intersections by 5-20% (Speck 225). Trees are also great for improving a city’s sustainability. Not only do trees help counter act the pollution from traffic and industry and provide shade, they actively counteract the urban heat island effect. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture states the cooling potential of a single tree is the same as ten ‘room-size air conditioners’ operating 24-hours a day which reduces the need to air conditioning and electricity (Speck 226).
The last two steps deal with creating the interesting walk; make friendly and unique face and pick your winners. The first of these deals with creating street life. Hiding parking, especially surface level parking, is very important to this. Disguising a garage with some creative art or putting it behind other buildings with access from an alley way or other discreet access, for example (Speck 238). Other things are allowing/encouraging restaurants to offer outdoor/sidewalk dining and using art to liven up large blank walls (Speck 240, Yuttho 2017).
Pick your winners, the final step to walkability, refers to the reality that it is not feasible to convert every part of everywhere to a walker’s paradise. The first question that should be asked by any planner or city council is where can we make the most change with the least investment (Speck 254). Cities should first focus on downtowns and other existing locations where many things required for walkability already exist, but maybe aren’t realized yet. Being overambitious and spending loads of money in somewhere without much of a return on investment is a sure-fire way to seed public dissent for future projects aimed at creating and increasing walkability (Speck 259).
Now, the best argument against all of this is the having a big yard in the suburbs with nothing but a whole lot of peace and quiet. Especially so if you don’t ever need to go into the city. And, to be honest there is no rebuttal to those who wish to live that lifestyle at any cost. Though, there are hidden costs to that lifestyle that many don’t realize along with some significant big picture issues are the basis for my agreement for pushing towards more walkable environments.
To society as a whole, unwalkable environments are more expensive, less healthy, and very much unsustainable (Speck 2013). Suburbs provide cheap and plentiful land, but there are hidden costs to that land. First there is the problem of low tax bases due to the reduced densities. On top of that suburban sprawl is more expensive to build as roads are bigger (even though traffic volume is miniscule). Costs for water and sewage services are higher due to the need for more pipes. Police and fire services are more expensive (or less efficient) as more stations are needed per capita to avoid too high of response times. Schools are more expensive from needing to bus students further distances. A 2014 study done in Denver, Colorado found that these types of development would cost local governments an extra $4.3 billion in infrastructure costs (without factoring in maintenance) compared to smart growth concepts through 2020 (Gallagher 2014). The people living in these areas also need to spend more money on transportation to get to work, school, the store, etc. while also taking more time to get to their destinations. Because of suburban sprawl, the average American spends 42 hours stuck in traffic/year and spends 1/5th of their income on transportation. Portland, Oregon was/is one of the few American cities to attempt to counter act suburban sprawl, promoting walkable public transit orientated environments, in the last 60 years. Because of this, today Portlanders drive 4 miles and 11 minutes less per day than the American average. This may not sound like much, but for the average Portlander that equals approximately $1,200/year, or 3.5% of their income (Speck 2013, US Census Bureau). $1,200/person/year, most of which gets funneled back into and boosts the local economy rather than leaving it completely, going through the gas pump to Exon Mobile, BP, and the other oil giants (Speck 2013).
Unwalkable environments are also less healthy. Today 33% of Americans are obese, compared to 10% in the 1970s before suburban sprawl started to dominate development patterns in the United Sates. Recent studies have shown this has more to do with lifestyle changes, rather than diet. Increasingly, environments around the US are inducing people to be less active. Be it with large expansive parking lots, high speed limit 6 lane roads with no sidewalks and entire miles between ‘safe’ crossing zones, freeways plowing through once vibrant inner-city neighborhoods, ‘tower in the park’ style development in the cities, or large swaths of suburban housing with nothing else nearby. These are all things that violate at least one (if not all) of Speck’s Ten Steps of Walkability. People in America are forced to drive, more often than not, removing their ability to get physical activity during daily activities. In San Diego, simply living in a more walkable neighborhood was found to decrease the likelihood of being overweight by 25% (Speck 2013). Deprioritizing cars for a more walkable environment is not removing your freedom to drive, as some argue, rather it is giving you the freedom to not drive by offering alternatives that don’t currently exist.
Figure 2 “Cool Climate Network”
Lastly, unwalkable environments are highly unsustainable ecologically. Contrary to popular belief, greenhouse gas emission per capita tend to be lowest in cities, specifically highly walkable cities. This can be seen in figure 2 for the northeast United States. Comparing two major cities, the average resident of New York consumes about 1/3 of the electricity of the average Dallas resident, and in the end produced 1/3 the greenhouse gasses of the average American (Speck 59). Green technologies will only make a small dent in this disparity, including electric and hybrid cars. A Nissan Leaf (a full electric vehicle) only shows a 33% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions per mile compared to similar sized gasoline cars when you factor in everything that goes into the construction and operation of the vehicles. Replacing all the light bulbs in an average house with energy efficient bulbs reduces greenhouse gas emissions in one year by the same amount that living in a walkable neighborhood would in one week. A house in an unwalkable neighborhood powered by solar and owned by someone who only drives a Prius is much greener than his neighbor’s house which runs on natural gas and who drives a Corolla, but it’s still hardly ‘green’ in comparison to a walkable neighborhood in the city (Speck 2013).
The broad goals of walkability and modern city planning certainly do aim to remove the need for anyone to every need to own a car. But, that is a highly idealized aim that most understand is not attainable for quite some time, if ever. These ideas in their current state are aiming to make car use the non-default choice for those living in cities and to lure people away from car-dependent areas with cost savings and quality of life improvements. Cars certainly have their places, but their costs are hardly realized by those who use them most and they do more damage to people and the environment than is easily visible. With more people moving to cities and the growing concerns of global warming, I see walkable cities and towns as the only environmentally and fiscally responsible option for the future.
City Beautiful, “Urban Sprawl: Which US City Sprawls the Most.” YouTube, 19 June 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=t54iKae1SiY. Accessed 10 Dec. 2017
“CoolClimate Network.” Coolclimate.berkeley.edu, coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps.
Gallagher, Leigh. “The Suburbs Will Die: One Man’s Fight to Fix the American Dream.” Time, Time, 28 July 2014, time.com/3031079/suburbs-will-die-sprawl/.
Mars, Roman, et al. “‘Shared Space’ Design: Road Signs Suck. What if We Got Rid of Them All?” 99% Invisible, 99percentinvisible.org/article/shared-space-design-road-signs-suck-got-rid/. Accessed 10 Dec. 2017
Pomerleau, Kyle. “How High are Other Nations’ Gas Taxes?” Tax Foundation, 3 Mar. 2015, taxfoundation.org/how-high-are-other-nations-gas-taxes/. Accessed 9 Dec. 2017
“Ramp Meters.” Minnesota Department of Transportation, 12 May 2003, www.dot.state.mn.us/rampmeter/study.html.
Speck, Jeff. TED, Sept. 2013. https://www.ted.com/talks/jeff_speck_the_walkable_city. Accessed 1 Dec. 2017
Speck, Jeff. Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
Yuttho, Kyle. “Interview with Jeff Speck.” YouTube, Yuttho, 15 Mar. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=lkdImAskYLM. This interview is the first half of Yuttho’s video “Cities: Skylines, Astergea EP11 – The Serendipity Neighborhood feat. Jeff Speck.” Accessed 10 Dec. 2017
US Census Bereau. “QuickFacts.” U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Portland city, Oregon, www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/portlandcityoregon/PST045216.
Wendover Productions, “How to Fix Traffic Forever.” YouTube, 18 Jul. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4PW66_g6XA. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017
Wendover Productions, “Why Public Transportation Sucks in the US.” YouTube, 26 Sept. 2017, www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cjfTG8DbwA. Accessed 8 Dec. 2017