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Walksheds, Cabspotting and Smart Places
Alex Steffen, 13 Apr 06

foto702.jpgA few weeks ago, Worldchanging ally Alan Durning's 18 year-old son totalled their family car. He was fine, the other driver was fine, but the car was a write-off. The family has therefore decided to conduct an experiment, and see if they can live a car-free lifestyle in a compact neighborhood in a mid-density North American city.

What they're discovering is that they can reasonably walk about a mile to do most things:

"A one-mile perimeter, therefore, defines this car-less family’s pedestrian travel zone—call it our “walkshed.” Fortunately, because we chose to live in a compact community, our walkshed turns out to be well stocked."

Now, we've discussed the benefits of walking (both for the walker and for the neighborhood itself). But one thing Alan has discovered is that there's a paucity of good information tools for walkers, even here in tech-friendly Seattle:

According to one map-making friend, creating walkshed maps... would be a relatively simple Google Maps “Mash Up.” Anyone know of such a tool? Anyone volunteer to do this project? I’d love to have a detailed map stowed in the “glove box” of our Burley of all 248 businesses in my home zone. Ideally, I would want a walking map or PDA application that shows me the whereabouts of public restrooms, water fountains, bike racks, curb cuts, bus stops, and benches.

It frankly shocks me a bit that such data isn't being compiled (by either City Hall or a local civic group) and made readily available, but my own map-making friend tells me that much of this data has either not been adequately compiled or is in formats which make it difficult for the average person to access, not only here in Seattle but most places.

But bright green cities are smart cities: whether we're talking about Seattle or Lagos, better information makes the lives of the citizens easier and the work of the government more likely to succeed. Better information about place is no magic bullet, but it can greatly enhance the ability of citizens to both take part in the civic lives of their cities and improve their lives directly.

Properly done, great placemaking and good information architectures support each other (or, as I wrote earlier "the physical, the neighborly, the visceral and urban and the virtual, the connected, the digital and networked -- these are symbiants, not competitors. The public square and wifi compliment each other. Public transportation and high density go extremely well with the kind of highly networked, extremely social lives which digital people live today.")

But all this requires more and better information be made widely and freely available in forms people can actually use, and in ways which promote rather than undermine democratic control over technologies.

There is no practical reason why such information can't be made available. From Google Earth to Placeopedia, the signs are everywhere that we're awash in information about place, and the tide is still rising (pardon the linked pun). Not all information wants to free, but much of it want to be at very least available on a pay-what-you-will basis, and some of it is too cheap to meter.

Consider Stamen Design's Cabspotting project is another great example. Taking data gathered from the GPS trackers in cabs and overlaying it over a street grid, Cabspotting allows artists to explore how traffic moves through the streets of San Francisco. It's part of the Invisible Dynamics initiative sponsored by SF's awesome Exploratorium (which has been one of my favorite museums since I was a little kid).

Cabspotting is an art project, not a planning tool, but that's precisely the point, really: we're soaking in this sort of data and wireless bandwidth (and if Adam Greenfield's right, we ain't seen nothing yet): making good choices will mean that the information we have increasingly empowers us, both as citizens and neighbors.

What does this all mean for us as individuals, and how does this tie back to Alan's original problem, the lack of good walking map for his neighborhood?

Well, it would not take all that big a push from where we're standing to create a network of governmental, NGO and community resources which made it possible for the Durnings to easily:

1) Create a digital walking map of their neighborhood which included most if not all of the information Alan requests above, as well as a whole bunch of other kinds of information, should he want to know it: how heavy traffic is on certain streets; when the next bus is coming; which of stores he wants to shop at are open today and when they close; whether there are enough cabs nearby should he want a ride home with his purchases; even what streets have higher incidences of crime and might perhaps be best avoided.

2) Connect to the underlying meaning beneath the maps and both learn more and share their own insights: is there a land-use change planned for the lot down the street? What are the builders proposing there (and, with visualization software, you could even find out flows around us: how's the local stream doing? What's the pollen count today? How much energy are we using, how much is the neighborhood using? What infrastructure supports our lives? What's coming out of the smokestack of the local factory (and how can we make pollution more measurable and more visible)?

4) Help us act in concert with our neighbors: how can we annotate places to spur community discussion? How can we make social software and local community work better together (and serve ends beyond getting a date or a party invitation)? Walkshed-scaled advocacy networking might be a real possibility.

5) Facilitate shared social goods: car shares, tool shares, product-service systems, stuff-swapping (freecycle-style) and junk tagging even hitchhiking.

6) Fuel local and regional economic activity and direct-to-consumer ventures like CSAs, both by making it easier to find these things in your walkshed and by helping to make it clearly from the where the things you are buying come.

The walkshed is the natural unit on which to concentrate delivery of the kind of information flows which will make places smart. And such information, done properly, could well transcend walking maps and become tools for sustainable living.

[A follow-up essay will be exploring what this sort of information means to people living in emerging megacities.]

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Alex - here's a reprint of my comments from the BioRegional post earlier today - I'm trying to implement exactly what you're talking about in number 6, and could use your help to gain some profile:

Alex - I'm trying to create a local leverage point of my own, working on effectively connecting local buyers and sellers using geo-tagged information. The goal is to take out the shipping (and associated resource usage and emissions) that marketplaces like eBay rely on. [i.e.: use more walking - read my SZ post for more]

Anyway - have a read about it on SustainabilityZone (click here), and take a quick visit to BlockRocker itself (click here).

Your (that's Alex and all readers) thoughts would be appreciated!

Posted by: Rod Edwards on 13 Apr 06

Sounds like a wikipedia-style map, with open-to-all access for additions and revisions.

Posted by: JC on 13 Apr 06

The folks over at are doing a really interesting thing with mapping. They don't just make mashups of existing data, they collect real world mapping information from local sources including people who might not even own computers.

Their annotation model supports everything from someone going jogging on local paths while wearing a GPS to individuals leaving written comments in drop boxes.

Posted by: jet on 13 Apr 06

"Walking and cycling are the most energy efficient and sustainable ways to travel. Over the same distance, cycling is almost 10 times more efficient than walking, and over 100 times more efficient than driving a petrol car" (from NZ Environmental ministry

So to the walkers I'd suggest getting bicycles - it will pay itself back in energy saved and increase your action radius. Travel 3 times as far as walking for a third of the energy in less time. If you need more exercise - shop further away :-)


Posted by: Brain the Smurf on 13 Apr 06

Maps for walking are a great idea, and definitely need a different emphasis to "regular" maps. Many routes are accessible to pedestrians that car/bike owners cannot use (cobblestone laneways, shortcuts through parks and so on.)

Walking along residential streets with nice gardens and houses is frequently preferrable to walking along footpaths beside noisy (and smelly) roads.

I frequently take a slightly longer, more pleasant, route as a few extra minutes added to a half hour walk is easily compensated for by the fresh air and silence.

Posted by: Tom on 14 Apr 06

Well, how nice to find that people can come to their senses. It takes what it takes, I guess. Do consider finding a good poncho for the rains. They fold down into the bottom of the day pack to go with the water. Shoes and feet become very important. We spend more on these, time, careful attention and money. We also have to tend our eating habits more carefully, our soil foodweb. Too many sugars can affect one's judgement in this hostile environs. It is safer to cross a street in the middle than where the signs want us too. One can see the vehicles turning and coming better. Remember that you have the power to stop faster than bikes or cars. This deferential is very important. The flow is more important than courtesy; I've had people stop for me which messes up traffic to the point where resentments start and social pressure to cross in a dangerous situation is made worse by nicey nice....shake the head to insist on your safety.
30 years experience.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 14 Apr 06

Or company produce urban walking maps for Sweden. Ordinary maps do not show paths between blocks, and discourage people from choosing circular routes for exercise and from walking to local amenities.

The actual production is quite easy. We get loals to draw in paths and footpaths and routes and we get them digitilised over the local maps.

clik on the link to read the article about our services.

Posted by: Stephen Hinton on 16 Apr 06

I've been carless in Seattle for more than a quarter century. After a few abortive attempts to learn to drive in my teens, the last ending in wreck that damaged property, I just gave up and never looked back. The world is a better place if I'm not in charge of hurtling chuncks of metal.

I definitely echo the health benefits. I'm rarely winded and I've never had back trouble of any kind, never.

Anyway, doing this for such a long span, you learn things. People in cars seem to stop and ask me for directions a lot. I guess they assume that because I'm on foot that I'm somehow deeply familiar with neighborhoods in a way that they are not. This is not always true but I try to give them what directions I can.

I know that there have been wireless, GPS-enabled mapping PDAs for people who are blind for at least five years now. They are rather expensive due to the smaller market but it seems that this is the kind of thing that could be leverage for all pedestrians. This would benefit blind people because the larger market will bring the prices down.

This is a very rich subject I could say a lot of things about but I'll leave it here.

Posted by: Pace Arko on 16 Apr 06

I love your walkshed ideas. I've dreamt of living "flaneur" maps and constantly-updated preference maps for awhile and you have great points.

Right now I'm devoting most of my resources to a new small business that's all about building smart places that invigorate neighborhoods and encourage community-building: PlaceSite. We turn urban wi-fi cafes and other public places where people use laptops into ultralocal online/offline community hubs. Already in 4 San Francisco cafes we're offering a simple GoogleMaps app that allows people to annotate their neighborhoods, and we're opening up the system as an open platform, hoping to partner with map developers to expand this service.

In short: we offer neighborhood portals where the locals can be encouraged to add the sort of knowledge you're talking about to maps that can be shared with others. If you'd like to get involved , if you're working on community mapping applications and would like to partner up, check us out:

Posted by: Sean Savage on 1 May 06



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