I'm listening to Jeff Speck (@jeffspeckAICP) at the Congress for New Urbanism today, which is a lot of Jeff really, having just had lunch at his house earlier in the week with the 2103 Great Places Tour hosted by client RobertsDay, and having just read - and blogged about - his book.

But it's OK, actually, because he speaks well, and of course this isn't territory I know so well that I don't need to hear it again. While I've written earlier on his argument about walkable cities and parking economics, and his argument about induced demand (more interesting than you think), and the 10 steps to walkability, (but have never gotten around to writing about how our built environment is killing us, or the economic value of walkability - read the book for those) I thought it was worth giving a quick recap of the highlights from yesterday. (And writing the world's longest paragraph in the process.)

Firstly, think demographics. (And notwithstanding that Speck's chapter on this, which condenses part of Chris Leinberger's message in the  book The Option of Urbanism is good, I also happened to hear this from the source himself earlier in the week; video and presentation coming soon. However if you want to hear a similar presentation given in Kansas check this video out here.)

Leinberger's point - or one of them, as I am drastically oversimplifying - is that we've simply got less children. These are the demographics. And with that comes a change - the baby boomers and the millenials want to live where the action is - and that should be downtown..

Then think economics and in particular the economic impact of driving less. For example Portlanders now drive 4miles less each day and 11minutes less per day. The money they're not spending on driving goes somewhere and it's not out of the community. It's no accident that young people moving are moving to Portland in  droves.

Then recognise the epidemiological argument: which is quite simply that sprawl is killing us. Speck contends that research shows that you can talk all you want about diet, and yes, it's important, but inactivity is the killer and it's because we have engineered the useful walk out of our lives. He cites the gluttony vs sloth study in the UK, where two groups of people had sensors in their knickers as far as i can recall, and ate the same food. One group also exercised; no prizes for which ones lost weight.

Then understand the crash data, and in the US, they apparently lose 14 people per hundred thousand each year to car crashes. (And I think, but cannot verify from my notes, that this is pedestrian fatalities caused by car crashes, as this is after all, the point.)

Of course, there are many other factors that make the argument for why walkability is key, but for that, honestly, read the book. Let me now look at a few snippets of how you actually make a city walkable.

First, where is walkability possible, because the fact is that it's not possible everywhere? Speck says that what's missing in most down towns is housing but he also goes on to say that there are about 100 moving parts that add up to a city feeling walkable. 

Some of these are block size - and when you double the size of the blocks, you also triple the number of lanes. However, when you widen the street (more lanes) in anticipation of forecast demand you then cause that forecast to occur. (This is back to induced demand - read the post: Build it and they will come: remove it and they will go.)

The fact is that congestion is the one true pain - the more there is, the less we want to drive. (Although we bitch about it.) And, in economic jargon the car is a 'free good' because it's not costed properly (or fully), so the smart choice for many people IS to use the car. "Take away the highways," Speck says "and there's no carmageddon."

Something else to note - which frankly as a non-planner, architect or anything to do with the profession I find a fascinating lens on human behaviour - are that one way streets cause jockeying - because of course, the grass IS always greener and the next lane IS faster. Always. And that people drive faster in a wider lane - which there are more of due to changes in codes and standards; the suburban road width has been brought downtown. They also drive faster depending on the kerb radius too.

Speck also cites biking as the biggest revolution, that's underway in some American cities. For example Portland invested $60m over 20 years, apparently half the price of a cloverleaf road thingummy, and as a result, 37% of kids now walk and bike to walk when 10 years ago their stats reflected the national average. (About 10% from memory but I could be wrong.)

Studies show that even just putting brightly marked lanes on the road can triple the amount of cycles on the road (and watch out for a fascinating taxonomy of the cyclist from another CNU speaker 0- post coming soon). Speck also mounts the case that doing so is like having a "horizontal billboard" for the city: it says we're a healthy city, a young city, and we look to the future.

Another important thing to consider when creating walkable streets is the role of parallel parking: it's the essential barrier of steel that helps make pedestrians feel safe. (Safe is one of the four ingredients of walkablity which you can find in the post 10 steps to walkability.)  Street trees are another important safety measure - a row of regularly spaced mature trees forms a wall. And, while some engineers believe it makes it less safe for drivers data shows that the number of accidents are fewer.

And this idea of a wall is interesting. I hadn't realised before about our desire to feel 'enclosed', but it makes perfect sense now. And, apparently, once you get beyond a 1:6 ratio of height to width you cease to feel enclosed.

Which leads me, none too seamlessly I admit, to these interesting facts: it only take 3 stories of building to hide 5 stories of parking garage
and it only takes 25 feet of building to hide 100 feet of parking garage.  And, if the economics don't support structured parking then wrap the donut.

"You have to do all if it you want to get people to walk", Speck says. But do it in places where it matters. For instance, Speck advises (and carries out) a 'frontage quality analysis' - work out your primary network of walkability then phase the revamping. Figure out anchors and paths. Fix the most important streets first then fix the street walls (where are the missing teeth) - build these places first he advises.


AuthorAmanda Falconer