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Deep Walkability
Alex Steffen, 10 Jan 10

Walkability is clearly critical to bright green cities. You can't advocate for car-free or car-sharing lives if people need cars to get around, and the enticement to walk is key to making density wonderful, to providing realistic transit options, to making smaller greener homes compelling and to growing the kind of digitally-suffused walksheds that post-ownership ideas seem to demand. So knowing how to define "walkable" is important.

That said, I'm skeptical of most measurements of walkability. Though I'm a fan of efforts like WalkScore, I think it's important to acknowledge their very real limitations. WalkScore, for instance, is a measurement not of walkability but proximity. If we're going to make decisions based on algorithms, we'd better make sure we're using the right formula.

The big thing I think falls out of most walkability formulas is a quality critical to the actual experience of walkability, and that's the extent to which the place in which you live is connected (by walking routes and easy transit) to other places worth walking to.

Unfortunately, in North America many great neighborhoods are islands of comparative pedestrian friendliness in seas of sprawl and pedestrian hostility. They may offer a lot of services close by -- you may be able to walk to buy a quart of milk or drink a cup of coffee in the cafe -- but going anywhere else involves a choice of long walks through forbidding surroundings and along dangerous streets or unhappy waits for inconvenient and underfunded transit.

To live in such a neighborhood is to understand the full impact of a half century of planning and public investment that treated a person walking as at best an afterthought, and very often as an inconvenience to cars that ought to be discouraged. No matter how great the cafes, sidewalks and street trees are in these 'hoods, they are not actually truly walkable because unless you want to feel like a prisoner trapped within their boundaries, you still must own a car.

The true test of walkability I think is this: Can you spend a pleasant half hour walking or on transit and end up at a variety of great places? The quality of having a feast of options available when you walk out your front door is what I'm starting to think of as "deep walkability."

It's this deep walkability that ought to be the top priority driving urban design and development in our communities. We ought to be looking at how to knit our walkable communities together and how to make friendlier the unwalkable streets between them.

In most cities, serious walkers (and bikers) share stories about the routes they've taken, hidden paths through the fractured landscape that let you walk safely and happily from one people-centered place to another. A killer urban ap would be one that revealed these urban songlines. A smart urban policy would be one that aimed to weave new walking routes through the whole urban fabric, until places walkers feared to tread were the exception rather than the expectation.

Basically, that would mean redevelopment and curative street design, which in turn often means making a conscious choice to slow down car traffic, to convert road lanes to train rails or bike trails, and to disincentivize parking and auto-oriented development in favor of sidewalk-focused density and transit-oriented development.

I think we need to recognize that the idea we can "balance" cars and sidewalk life is a dangerous illusion. The only way to make pedestrians and bikers safe and welcome is to slow cars down, to make it clear that the place through which they're driving is one in which they need to pay attention, and, whenever possible, to get those cars off the streets and out of way of trains, bus, bikes and strollers.

Assert the primacy of people enjoying the act of walking, and density begins to become community, transit begins to become an essential amenity rather than a safety net, and life begins to orient around experiences and access rather than accumulation and convenience. The act of walking is, I think more and more, at the very foundation of every other bright green possibility.

A place that embraces deep walkability could almost be considered the very definition of a great city.

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Many good points here, Alex. You know, I think that some of what you're getting at might actually be solvable, at least at a city-of-Seattle type scale. Surely someone has come up with a simple checklist by which we might create a quantifiable assessment of the "deep walkability" of a single city block. (Possibly a few different checklists, one for residential streets, one for arterials, one for urban village blocks?) Create a crowdsourced app to let people run those assessments on each block in the city, combine the results, maybe cross-mix some WalkScore type proximity data in for good measure and... voila!

Posted by: Jon Stahl on 10 Jan 10

Really great points. I have lived so many places that would have been considered "walkable" by proximity, but were not actually walkable. It seems like maybe something could be done with existing property easements to create a network of walkable spaces within and between the existing car-oriented infrastructure. It wouldn't be enough, but might be a first step.

Posted by: Jess @OpenlyBalanced on 10 Jan 10

After a holiday trip to low-density, sprawling Florida, where the presence of bike lanes and sidewalks obviously belied a Complete Streets policy, I have to say that the concept of "sidewalk-focused density" is spot on. Ped/bike facilities are not a panacea; these interventions need to be placed within a land-use context that also supports walkability.

I would maybe even twist it to "walkability enabling density". Without the land use, we are doomed to roll that stone up the hill in perpetuity.

Posted by: Brice Maryman on 10 Jan 10

agreed. walkscore is a great start, and it needs to get a lot better. there is room for a competing service, possibly from google. it needs to take into account places like where i live, surrounded by steep hills and roaring highways, so nobody walks anywhere, but my walkscore is still in the upper 90s.

Posted by: Peter Smith on 10 Jan 10

It is important to add that walkable communities or more appropriately phrased "communities where people walk" need not just great places for people to go, but a set of places close by that people must go to as a part of everyday life. With many offices and factories relocated to far-flung suburbs--walking to work in many cities has become non-existent. You can have great cafes and parks, but if everyone has to leave town to work then your sidewalks will be empty most of the time. The question of how to attract jobs back to the core as well as mixing work space into residential neighborhoods is as crucial to walkability as proximity to basic goods and services.

Posted by: Robin on 11 Jan 10

As David Owen argues in his recent book "Green Meteopolis," walkability is probably the most important environmental issue facing America (and the world) today. Greenwashing the suburbs with hybrid cars, solar panels, and argon-filled high-R windows will have far less impact on carbon emissions and fossil fuel consumption than simply encouraging people to move into denser neighborhoods. Such places pay triple dividends, discouraging var use, encouraging small dwellings that are intrinsically energy efficient, and reducing the tendency for people to consume crap that ends up in their garage (or next year's garage sale).

Another good point you refer to is that the walkscore isn't adequate if it only considers distances alone. Making walks inviting (with street trees and shop windows to glance into along the way) and safe (by calming traffic) is just as important as shrinking distances between buildings and uses. A more intelligent walkscore might incorporate qualitative user feedback on how inviting a particular walk is. Ultimately, the true walkscore of an area can simply be gleaned from the number of people using its sidewalks.

Posted by: Jason S on 11 Jan 10

As a German who has lived and worked in Columbus, OH for two months, I saw the challenges facing Americans in this area first hand - which was quite a culture shock to me.

At one part, I wanted to go to a shop in another part of the city. Along the way, I had to walk on the green next to major thoroughfares because no sidewalks or footpaths were going into the same direction. And after more than two hours of walking, I had to turn back because the bridge I wanted to use to cross a river didn't have any sidewalk either - which is something I simply hadn't conceived of.

Taking a closer look at the maps of the city, I must echo the sentiment that each neighborhood appeared to be an island, with no easy ways for non-motorists to get to a different neighborhood. Over here in Germany, footpaths would have been everywhere to connect the different paths of the city, but no such luck in Columbus.

Posted by: Jürgen Hubert on 11 Jan 10

That is a great point about needing good walking routes to destinations outside the neighborhood. I live in Capitol Hill and I regularly walk downtown because the route via Pike and Pine streets is very pleasant and walkable. Seattle Center, on the other hand, is about the same distance but I have only walked it once. The walk along Denny is very car-oriented, the sidewalks are poor, and it is simply not interesting from a pedestrian perspective. I would love to walk to Seattle Center or Lake Union but right now there are no good routes. Perhaps the Pedestrian Master Plan should focus a bit more on this concept.

Posted by: Zef Wagner on 11 Jan 10

I've been kind of obsessed too about trying to figure out where there exists pedestrian continuity instead of just small pockets of walkability. One idea I had was to use geotagged photos from Flickr and Picasa as indications that somebody was at a particular location and probably on foot (and furthermore that they saw something interesting there), and to plot maps of where there were clusters of photos so that the areas of contiguous interest could be distinguished from isolated pockets.

I think the results do a pretty good job of identifying continuity and discontinuity. If you want to take a look at the maps yourself, they are at

Posted by: Eric Fischer on 11 Jan 10

Tom Friedman in Taiwan yesterday at invite of President Ma, told lecture:
"I’m gonna tell you a secret. Don’t let anybody else know,” Friedman
said. “There are too many Americans in the world today.”It is a blessing that so many people in the world can live like
Americans, Friedman said, but “the good Lord did not design our planet
for this many Americans. see LINK to full story

Posted by: danny bloom on 11 Jan 10

This is a great post on a topic that I think a lot about. What is walkability and how can we measure it? Walkability, I believe has two sides. First, where can you actually get on your feet - how far and to what? Second, how easy and pleasant was the experience.

I've been working on a project called Walkshed that attempts to more accurately measure walkability. Walkshed uses the idea of "pedestrian friction" to determine which parts of the city are accessible on foot. This is done by accounting for things that both help and hinder pedestrian access like the quality of the street grid, trails, parks, interstates, railroad tracks, and bodies of water. It's far from perfect, but I hope that I'm taking steps in the right direction for more accurately measuring this idea of "deep walkability".

What Walkshed doesn't do is measure the more subjective aspect of walkability, though I've been toying with the idea for some time. I was glad to see some really creative ideas on this thread. Crowdsourcing is the obvious solution but Eric's geotagged photo maps are quite clever. I'd love to hear more.

Again, great post.

Posted by: Aaron on 12 Jan 10

It's stories like this that really quantify why I live in a major urban center. I've never actually used WalkScore before and just out of idle curiosity I looked at some of the places I've lived over the past few years, and almost all have WalkScores in the high 90s, even without any transit information included - including one of the places I found isolatingly remote. I find it so incredibly liberating to live somewhere where the disincentives to car ownership so dramatically overwhelm the benefits - why would I drive when I can walk, bike, or take a street car or subway essentially anywhere I need to go in less time and for orders of magnitude less money?

Posted by: Andrew Leinonen on 12 Jan 10

Identifying walkable/bikeable areas is one thing, coming up with creative solutions is another, and convincing political entities of the necessity of change is quite the hardest. How do we elevate this conversation to the point where the autocentric paradigm is upended, and mayors, engineers, and everyday folks can speak our language. We have a long way to go to make this a sexy and accessible subject. We won't see real change until we change the discourse in America.

Posted by: Stella Bonaparte on 12 Jan 10

I always think about how sound fits into this equation: part of walkability is how much noise assaults the walker. I wonder if there's a way to map noise?

Posted by: Julie on 12 Jan 10

Julie: There have been some attempts to create noise maps, for example

It seems like the hardest part is distinguishing desirable sounds that are part of a pleasant experience from undesirable sounds that drive people away, since it isn't just a matter of sheer volume level.

Posted by: Eric Fischer on 12 Jan 10

What an effective exploration of our primary and most basic means of mobility! Walkability is indeed a critical measure of the character of green urbanism and sustainable development. My sense is that as a society we do not pay enough attention to the experience of pedestrian access, where the vital and memorable qualities of urban rooms and spaces establish the healthy context for walking. The future resilience of places will depend upon how those spaces are designed for safety, comfort, and sensory delight, so that access is not a chore, but a memorable contribution to daily life. A real challenge for our society is to successfully transform the empty roadway spaces of suburban city to a setting which enhances experiential walking.

Posted by: Jerry Shapins on 13 Jan 10

I faced a similar culture shock as the German in Columbus, OH. I'm a resident of NYC originally from Dallas, and while I didn't give a second thought to walkability or transit while I was growing up (I just drove like everyone else), it hits me hard now whenever I go home to visit.

My mom lives in a quiet neighborhood relatively near the center of town, and because she works at a university, her workplace is actually quite close - less than a mile away. In New York, she would have the enviable ability to walk to work, and I'm sure she would in most weather. In Dallas, she would have to walk along a major thoroughfare and cross a major expressway, using sidewalks that abruptly end in the middle of blocks. She drives to work every day, though walking would vastly improve her health. The only people who "walk" there are actually jogging or walking their dogs - they can afford to stay on quiet streets where there are sidewalks, because they're not heading to a particular destination. On a recent visit, I walked a short distance to run some errands, and got suspicious looks from the joggers, dog-walkers, and people on their porches - as if walking without any visible purpose made me a questionable character.

Living in New York, it's easy to think that at least MY city has walkability down, but then I remember the far flung areas of Brooklyn or Queens or the Bronx, some of which probably feel as restrictive as Dallas. Going home reminds me how important walkability is, and how lucky I am to live in such a walkable place. It also saddens me to see just how much would have to change to make a place like Dallas walkable, and how resigned and comfortable people are with driving everywhere, even a few blocks away.

Posted by: marthagrace on 13 Jan 10

Noise is indeed one of the important but usually ignored or unquantified disincentives to walking. Helle Soholt of Gehl Architects is very clear that cities have to reduce their ambient noise levels to become more walkable. (With their friction, cars create a lot of noise while pedestrians, bikers, and transit create little) I think a simple rule of thumb test for this is whether you have to raise your voice to have a conversation with someone while you're walking.

This is one of the many huge problems superhighways have created in urban cores. Like Zef, I live on Seattle's Capitol Hill and walk downtown via Olive Way. But I-5, with something like 10 lanes there, is a hideous gash in the urban fabric (on the four streets nearby where you can cross it on foot). Not only do thousands of cars going 60 mph create a hostile level of noise, but given the highway's width and lack of a lid, it lasts a long time for pedestrians crossing it. Also, since you're only on a highway overpass essentially, there's nothing to see along it and no buildings providing light at night so it feels foreboding. Connecting more streets across highways would help make them more permeable as barriers, but ultimately they'll need to be removed or buried/covered to solve the noise, aesthetic, and other land use problems they create.

Posted by: Jon Morgan on 14 Jan 10

In fairness to Danny Westneat, was he not just asking that parking lots that already exist be allowed to charge a small fee to allow people to park there as a temporary measure. Does not this half step of getting people near the rail line serve some purpose? It seems to me that we are going to end up with alot of unused parking space in retail lots. Some could be broken up and reclaimed as urban green space/park/garden perhaps. Some could be changed to covered bike parking, and some could be resourced as paid parking for the rail lines.

Your blanket negative response to what he was saying was fortunately not treated as such by Mike McGinn.

Posted by: Bill Reiswig on 14 Jan 10

Some community groups in Seattle have been working to develop walking trails of their neighborhoods. These trails look to find (and eventually create) enjoyable corridors and routes that link people with their destinations. Two examples of this are the Northeast Seattle Trails map and the West Seattle Trails map by Feet First.

In some of the more suburban neighborhoods of our cities, I think these efforts will go a long way to develop visions and priorities of neighborhood mobility. When people think that a neighborhood is completely unwalkable and beyond hope, it is hard to fathom any way to begin. Getting people to recognize some of the opportunities that do exist can start the discussion of what matters and how to move forward.

Posted by: Seth on 14 Jan 10

Great comments, everyone - lots to think about here.

In re: Westneat, as I said elsewhere "I think an essential mistake here is the idea that light rail’s main purpose is to serve commuters, especially commuters who live far enough from the station to have to drive to it to use it.

"It’s not. The main utility of fixed transit is to encourage land use changes that greatly increase the number of people who don’t own cars at all, or own them and drive rarely. That development, in turn, facilitates more modest (yet still important) changes in the surrounding communities.

"The positive spill-over effects from transit-oriented development are huge; the benefits of driving to light rail and taking light rail downtown are minimal (especially when we’re talking emissions).

"Land use change is the name of the game. If that’s not going to happen, we’re screwed no matter how we get to work."

In other words, light rail is only worth it as an investment if it promotes deep walkability. If it doesn't, it doesn't matter whether or not more distant residents take light rail, it's still a failure.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 14 Jan 10

Alex;s comment gets to what I was thinking when I recently visited NYC.

I thought that NYC had a subway because it was so dense and walkable. I think it maybe that it is so walkable because it has a subway and the land use changed in response.

I think communities try to make mass transit work for the current land use and they cannot figure it out. What they should be doing is designing mass transit for a new approach to land use that is walkable. The pattern has always been that land use conforms to transit. Plan your transit well and land use will follow.

Again, the problem is political. People have to want the change in land use.

Posted by: Bill S on 20 Jan 10

This is exactly the problem I have with Walkscore. While I agree that they've made a great start, the word "walkable" isn't something you can score through a website.

My neighborhood has a very high walkability rating -- but the website doesn't take into account the fact that in order for me or any of my neighbors to get to all of the things indicated on the map, we have to walk across a 6-lane highway. Between the short amount of time you have to cross, and the people who make turns even though pedestrians have the right-of-way, it's a crapshoot as to whether you'll make it across safely.

There's a lot more to the concept of "walkability" than the simple question of being able to walk from *here* to *there* in a reasonable amount of time. Thank you so much for a thoughtful post on this -- hopefully the "right" people are reading it, too.

Posted by: Carol Ott on 27 Jan 10

I was just in Vienna, Austria. Meets this criteria easily. And was voted most livable city in the world recently:

The interesting thing about Vienna is that it is a cultural and commerce center without being a financial center. It's a financial backwater despite it's size and importance to central Europe, which for me seemed like a fortunate accident of history. Upon my arrival, a friend took me to a cafe that overlooked the city. There were just a handful of skyscrapers. That's because there's not much of a financial district.

So I have a hunch that the lack of hypercapitalism had a positive impact on livability. The topography of the city apparently has not been distorted by the needs of capital and the ultra-rich, and thus is a great place for people.

Posted by: Neal Gorenflo on 8 Jul 10

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