REVIEW: ‘Walkable City’ Offers Clear Guidance on How to Improve Cities

Walkable CitiesIn his 2012 book, Walkable City, Jeff Speck, coauthor of Suburban Nation and The Smart Growth Manual, branches out on his own to nail down a comprehensive guide to walkability.

He contends that a great deal of money and muscle have gone into streetscape improvements, but how important are these in convincing people to walk? The book is rooted in Speck’s ‘General Theory of Walkability’, that for walking to be favored, it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting.

  1. Useful: Most aspects of daily life close at hand and well-organized
  2. Safe: Streets that are designed to be safe and also feel safe to pedestrians
  3. Comfortable: Urban streets as outdoor living rooms
  4. Interesting: Sidewalks lined by unique buildings with friendly faces

Speck then prefaces his ten steps to walkability with some notable cases studies proving the economic advantage of walkable places, real estate premiums of walkable urbanism versus drivable suburbansism, the personal and health benefits those in walkable places gain, the environmental impacts of driving, and one’s risk of dying in a traffic crash versus murder by a stranger.

“It is the places shaped around automobiles that seem most effective at smashing them into each other.”

The book is a useful read for those looking to better understand urban design and transportation policy practices, and how they influence our behaviors in cities. Here is a summary of Speck’s analysis and thoughts on working towards a more walkable community using his ‘Ten Steps of Walkability.’

Step 1: Put cars in their place
Speck acknowledges that the auto will remain a fixture of our communities given the Federal Government’s historic and current interest, with some nudging from the “Road Gang” lobby, in road building and the inverse relationship between highway investment and property values.

He argues that traffic studies are “bullshit” by nature and that all transportation decisions should be made in light of induced demand, the phenomenon rooted in the economic theory of supply and demand where demand from drivers tends to quickly overwhelm new supply.

He goes on to attack state DOTs and their involvement, or lack thereof, in the new American Main Street – the state road running right through town. He is against pedestrian zones, for congestion pricing, and notes how the automobile has not moved us any faster, just further.

Step 2: Mix the uses
Speck notes the historical impetus for Euclidean Zoning and that it now undermines the success of cities.

Humans can no longer work, shop, eat, drink, learn, recreate, convene, worship, heal, visit, celebrate, and sleep all within downtown, and the primary inadequacy of housing prevents all other activities from thriving. However, the housing inadequacy should not be made up with more affordable housing, as cities have too much of it, but affordable housing should come through inclusionary zoning and accessory dwelling units.

Step 3: Get the parking right
The author also points out something we’re all affected by on a daily basis but rarely think about, the amount of off-street parking that exists and how its cost in all forms is “diffused everywhere in the economy.”

Speck notes that employer-subsidized parking and minimum parking requirements undermine urbanism and instead advocates for in-lieu fees to fund shared municipal parking and parking cash out programs for employees of large companies.

Speck also carefully addresses the more exact science of on-street parking using parking guru Donald Shoup, author of The High Cost of Free Parking. Speck summarizes this discussion with a comparison between the Chicago parking meter lease where profit for Morgan Stanley (now CPM) bears no relation to parking occupancy, and San Francisco’s managed congestion-pricing regime that seeks goal occupancy of 80%, meaning rates ranging from $0.25/hour to $6.00/hour throughout eight neighborhoods.

Step 4: Let transit work
“With rare exceptions, every transit trip begins and ends with a walk. As a result, while walkability benefits from good transit, good transit relies absolutely on walkability.”

Speck is an advocate of well-planned modern streetcars. He points to the failures of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system “where parking is as ubiquitous as it is cheap, the only significant constraint to driving is the very congestion that DART hopes to relieve.”

Metro Buses
Speck strongly supports the expansion of bus service to provide greater accessibility and mode choices. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

He contends streetcars should not be means of reducing traffic, but should act as pedestrian accelerators that make the most sense when a large area of vacant or underutilized land sits just beyond walking distance from a walkable downtown, and that private parties should want to help pay for it. For the rare routes where other transit can offer a superior experience to driving, there must be urbanity, route clarity, frequency and pleasure; and traditional buses have a hard time being efficient and pleasurable.

Step 5: Protect the pedestrian
“Will potential walkers feel adequately protected against being run over, enough so that they make the choice to walk?”

Speck first advocates small block lengths with many blocks per square mile providing route options and shorter distances between destinations. Next, he addresses design speed and how four lanes roads can encourage weaving and how effective road diets can be when they include left turn lanes. He advocates for the historic lane width of 10 feet, rather than 12 feet which is the standard for cars going 70mph and how pedestrians are much more likely to survive being hit at 20mph than 45mph.

He then addresses the psychology of intersections and risk homeostasis, naked streets and shared spaces saying, “nobody drove dangerously through this intersection, precisely because the intersection felt dangerous.”

Speck does not believe one-way streets are appropriate for downtowns, especially retail areas where traffic is distributed unevenly and cross-street visibility is reduced and also addresses bike lanes, trolleys and curb cuts impact on pedestrians.

“What makes a sidewalk safe is not its width, but whether it is protected by a line of parked cars that form a barrier of steel between the pedestrian and the roadway.”

Step 6: Welcome bikes
“A street with bikes, once the drivers get used to them, is a place where cars proceed more cautiously.”

Streets with bicycle infrastructure have proven safer for pedestrians and drivers, with the biggest factors in establishing a biking city being urbanism and infrastructure. Portland increased the population of people biking to work from 1% to 8% in 15 years with only $50 million or 1% of their transportation funding.

He goes on to point out the obvious dangers of cycling, especially vehicular cycling, and how bike lanes can be used as part of road diets but should not replace curbside parking or be and impediment in retail areas.

Step 7: Shape the spaces
“If a team of planners was asked to radically reduce the life between buildings, they could not find a more effective method than using modernist planning principles”- Jan Gehl.

Speck hits on one of the more well-known urban design tenets – that pedestrians enjoy a sense of enclosure and need it to feel comfortable. The trouble is, however, that the typical American urban experience is a profound lack of spatial enclosure, “a checkerboard city devoid of two-sided streets,” and that figural space (the public realm) is in a battle with the figural object of modernist architects.

Main Street
Planting street trees and creating a buffer between pedestrians, like along Main Street in Over-the-Rhine, Speck says is critical for success. Photograph by Randy Simes for UrbanCincy.

He goes on to state that tall buildings are not necessarily needed to create this enclosure, or density, and can actually be a detriment to downtown development.

Step 8: Plant trees
Trees can also create a cathedral-like enclosure over streets and have other environmental, health, safety and economic benefits. Street trees provide an obvious buffer between sidewalks and automobiles, though DOT’s and county engineers have seemingly chosen the safety of drivers over that of pedestrians by categorizing street trees as “fixed hazardous objects.”

Trees close to the roadway also capture CO2 and rain more effectively and should be part of the solution to combined sewer overflows. The author goes on to mock how little it takes to achieve the Tree City USA designation, the return on investment trees can provide, and varying species block-by-block to guard against disease.

Step 9: Make friendly and unique faces
Pedestrians demand almost constant stimulation, and parking lots, windowless storefronts, and landscapes fail to do this. Where there is parking, surface lots can be hidden from view by mere one-story buildings, and parking structures should be hidden from view by liner buildings or at least have upper floors that appear to be inhabited.

Cities need active, open and lively building edges with transparent building facades and features that add depth such as awnings, deep window sills and columns. Facade geometries should also be oriented vertically and limited in width to provide the appearance of a shorter walk and building variety.

He is critical of modernist architect’s disinterest in pedestrian activity and singles out Frank Gehry, but goes on to bail modernism, but not brutalism, out by stating “what matters is not whether the details were crafted by a stone carver or a cold extruder, but whether they exist at all.”

Lastly, he reiterates that the greening of the city in an untraditional manner should be avoided as open spaces can encourage people to take walks, but do not cause people to embrace walking as a practical form of transportation.

Step 10: Pick your winners
Finally, Speck acknowledges there is a finite supply of financial resources to create walkability and therefore it should be spent where the most difference can be made- where there’s already an accommodating private realm with comfort and interest to support an improved public realm.

Speck then uses this logic to create his urban triage plan for walkability that steers financial resources to the identified network. He states that though it may not be viewed as equitable, that this plan should happen first in downtowns as they are shared places and are important to the city image and attracting investment.

  • Why on Earth would “traditional buses have a hard time being efficient and pleasurable” in most cases? Pleasurable is subjective enough…but perhaps you can clarify the ‘efficiency’ point?

    And why should a streetcar be used to go to connect a downtown to “large area of vacant or underutilized land”? Why would anyone want to go from downtown to nowhere?

    Sounds like he’s got some decent ideas on what makes pedestrian streets interesting but he doesn’t really understand much about transit or even transportation. Perhaps he’s visited a lot of cities as a tourist with nowhere he needs to go quickly and regularly.

    • Buses are inefficient because there is no predictability to how many times they will stop, or how long it will take them at each stop. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as those negatives also create benefits of connecting with more people and having greater flexibility.

      But this is the exact reason why fixed transportation infrastructure is so much more powerful at driving economic development. There is a predictable number of stops, how long the stops take, and so on. This not only adds certainty for the development community, but it also attracts new-to-transit riders that are otherwise intimidated by the uncertainty of buses.

    • I’m curious how many times you’ve climbed onto a bus knowing where it was supposed to go and the bus got ADHD and went a completely different way.

      The only times that has happened to me were incidents where the bus was avoiding a major obstruction in the roadway like uncleared ice or a bunch of firetrucks responding to a fire. Of course, the bus driver announced the deviation to passengers, and only got off course for as long as was necessary to avoid the obstacle. Such events would simply shut down a streetcar which wouldn’t have the option of changing routes.

      Transportation isn’t primarily about economic development. It’s about transportation.

    • Do you have every route of every bus system in the world memorized? With no stations and no consistently understandable system maps, how is one suppose to figure it out quickly and easily?

      I take the bus all the time in all sorts of cities, but let’s not confuse our personal understanding of bus systems as the standard. It’s also important to know what buses do well, and what they don’t do well. Just as it’s important to recognize what other modes of transportation do well and not so well.

      It’s not an either or proposition. That’s my point. Transportation is obviously about transportation first and foremost, but it is also about doing more than that. It’s about creating holistic communities and helping foster economic growth.

      The same holds true for just about everything we do in our cities. We don’t just want to design streets to move people/goods as fast and efficient as possible, we also want our streets to be great public realms, support business, and foster social interaction. It’s all interconnected.

    • This is fun! I love a good sparring match 🙂

      Do you know the rail portion of every transit system in the world like the back of your hand? I certainly don’t. I contend, and will continue to do that buses tend to have really bad maps for no good reason at all. Bad, confusing maps make people think buses themselves are squirelly and unreliable, mistaking what they can see for what really is; an easy mistake to be sure.

      There are many places where bus routes are simpler and easier to understand than subways or the like. Manhattan for instance has buses running straight up and down the avenues while the subways go diagonally all over the place. One of those modes has a map that is easier to read, but that’s simply not the same thing as simplicity itself.

      Also, there is definitely some bad planning in many bus routes that the gargantuan capital costs of grade-separated rail tend to force to a minimum. Still, reason could be(though often isn’t) a better guide than municipal poverty 😉

      Anyway, (*parry, parry, JAB*) look at how complex the Cincinnati Streetcar route is to be compared to the straight-line simplicity of the #17.

    • I don’t have all the rail lines in the world memorized, but I don’t need to either. All I need to do is walk into any station and there is an easy to understand map right there, and I can see the rails in the ground.

      And yes, phase one of the Cincinnati Streetcar is more complex than the fairly straight line of the #17 but, once again, you can actually see the rails in the ground and there will be maps at the stations. This is not true for the #17. In fact, if you were an out-of-towner it may be confusing to even know where the #17 stops, much less where it goes (with no maps posted anywhere but at Government Square).

      Of course you could make physical upgrades to bus routes that improve their visibility, but then you start to lose all of those cost savings.

    • ALL of the cost savings? You could do quite a bit more than you would ever need to do to clarify the #17 for less than $500,000 😛
      The streetcar, to accomplish a similar level of visibility would cost more than a two hundred times that.

      A cheap bus shelter costs $5,000ish, a totally awesome one, perhaps $30,000. A good map could be commissioned for less than $5,000 and you could surely paint a lane on the street through Downtown and OTR for around $100,000.

      Let’s say we paint the lane, buy the crazy shelters, make a map, and assume as many as 10 stops:
      100000 + 30000 * 10 + 5000 = $405,000

    • The reason why you like to connect large employment centers (i.e. downtowns) with large areas of vacant or underutilized housing is because it creates an easy connection between the two, and offers a level of certainty and predictability for both developers and transit riders in those areas.

      If you can get a large number of people living near where they work, then you can focus on provide more circulator-type transit offerings that move people between a large number of destinations (work, store(s), home, etc) over a small area. This is what streetcars do very well.

    • If we’re interested in offering easy connections between places, don’t you think we might best start by connecting places where people already are?

      If a downtown were surrounded on three sides by dense development packed with lots of people, and on the other side by a big grassy field, your logic would have you first building a streetcar to the field.

    • It depends what your purpose is. If you want to spur growth in an existing neighborhood with a high potential for a large number of housing units, then a fixed investment is better than a non-fixed investment. Your return on investment is better that way.

      Obviously building a line to an empty field is a different scenario, and not one that I presented.

      Connecting existing populations with existing job centers is a great goal as well. It’s just different. But one thing to be wary of is that a large amount of our population now lives in far-flung suburbs, and connecting all of them with transit (even just bus service) would be incredibly expensive both in terms of upfront capital costs and ongoing operational costs.

      I personally think you need to do both since you want to connect existing destinations with one another, but you also want to start encouraging more compact living patterns since our growth patterns have been so skewed for so long. At some point you have to start righting the ship, and not just accommodate the mistakes of the past.

    • One would assume the purpose of transportation is to move people from where they are to where they could be. A result of increased access could be increased economic activity, but it is primarily an increase in freedom(in part freedom to engage in exchange).

      I certainly wouldn’t suggest that connections to all people, even rural ones, must be made before they can be made to close-in empty but developable land, but to say that transit should first serve as few people as possible(sparser, more vacant land over denser, more populated land) is exactly wrong. That would have the effect of increasing access for fewer people and decreasing total opportunities for exchange.

      It might stimulate a hyper-local increase in real estate valuation(known as ‘economic development’ in so many places), but it would have the effect, relatively, of suppressing activity in the broader economy, at least in the short to medium term as people engaged in unproductive activities like abandoning or devaluing a fine building and building a new one in a different place.

    • “…but to say that transit should first serve as few people as possible (sparser, more vacant land over denser, more populated land) is exactly wrong. That would have the effect of increasing access for fewer people and decreasing total opportunities for exchange.”

      Who has made this argument? Certainly not me or Jeff Speck. It feels like you’re debating someone else.

    • It’s there in the post:
      “He contends streetcars … make the most sense when a
      large area of vacant or underutilized land sits just beyond walking
      distance from a walkable downtown…”

      To clarify, I should have said “as few people as possible *in the short term*” for he surely intends that land to fill up. But in the short AND long term, it would be best to direct transit to a densely developed piece of land just out of walking distance, not an empty one. A policy that did otherwise would seem to favour hypothetical people over actual ones and would make as little sense in the future as in the present.

    • TimSchirmang

      If we use a streetcar to connect jobs and housing, enough people will move to these areas and be connected so that the streetcar will work very well. This begs the question, and I’m with Nate in thinking that urban planning makes more sense as a policy compliment of socio-economics rather than a policy driver. People aren’t plastic.

    • Eric

      His four conditions lacking in today’s transit are urbanity (stops in the heart of the action users can “fall into from a coffee shop”), clarity (simple route that allows riders to form mental image of path), frequency (10 minute headways) and pleasure (transit as mobile form of public space- big nontinted windows that open, wifi, double deckers). The only system in this area that meets all of these conditions is TANK’s Southbank Shuttle.

      He’s for true BRT with separated paths, signal priority at intersections, level boarding, 10-minute frequency and GPS indicators. My opinion is that traditional buses are not only uncomfortable but in rush hour seem to act simply as large autos having to fight the same congestion without the above items. Here’s a BRT station under construction in Grand Rapids, MI, where Speck is a consultant-

      He calls streetcars pedestrian accelerators for short trips between walkable urbanism and cites Hoyt Rail Yards in Portland. Though the length is comparable to Portland, I think the Cincinnati Streetcar is slowly morphing into a UC commuter line and the desired relationship between downtown and OTR is largely being neglected, it’s about more than just connecting the largest employment centers. Are people working first shift downtown and then second shift at UC? Lol.

    • That makes much more sense 🙂

      Though I might take slight issue with the false dichotomy of Bus vs. BRT. As with most things, it’s all on a spectrum, and incremental improvements to the speed, comfort and legibility of ‘Traditional Buses’ shouldn’t necessarily be neglected in favour of smaller, but more radical changes, which IMO have tended to create two classes of transit service in people’s minds rather than promoting the efficacy of the whole system.

  • wklis

    You may have building that face the street, but are they accessible. I have seen buildings right next to the sidewalk, but only a blank wall faces the street. No windows with displays, no entrances. To get to the entrance, pedestrians have to walk around the perimeter of the building (if there is a walkway around the perimeter, that is) to get to and from the entrance. Not very “walkable”, since they still cater to the cars parking in the lot behind the building.

  • TimSchirmang

    To anyone that can provide an answer, I have a question about Speck’s remark: “What makes a sidewalk safe is not its width, but whether it is
    protected by a line of parked cars that form a barrier of steel between
    the pedestrian and the roadway.”

    Is he talking about perceived safety or actual safety? And how does this remark fit into his walkability scheme? Is he conceding that some cars are necessary as blockades to make the sidewalk safer, or is he pointing out the madness of needing cars to protect people from cars?

    I was also curious about his opinion that one-way streets are bad in downtown settings, to the extent his comment relates to pedestrian safety. As a pedestrian I’d much rather face a bunch of one-ways because it greatly reduces where potential vehicles can be coming from. Two way crossings where cars can be trying to turn on red and beat the red light from multiple directions is a greater pedestrian threat it seems.

    • Pedestrians both feel safer and are actually safer when there is a barrier between them and moving vehicular traffic. In many cases this comes in the form of on-street parking, but it can also come in the form of bollards or planters. In many European cities you will see either on-street parking or one of these other features so that pedestrians constantly have a physical barrier protecting them from moving automobiles.

      With regards to your point about one-way traffic, I actually understand what you’re saying. I’ve made that case before too. Most people who advocate for two-way street conversions do so because it 1) slows down traffic and 2) increases visibility for businesses along the road. It tends to be much better for neighborhood business districts, and the slowing of the traffic generally makes the streets safer for pedestrians. Although I do believe you’re right that it increases the potential number of conflicts at an intersection or crossing for pedestrians and cyclists.

    • TimSchirmang

      I suppose I have never never really felt in danger on the sidewalk, barrier or no barriers, except for at corners where cars can take the turn too sharp. I can relate this concern to train and subway platforms though; I wish more barriers existed there to protect against my (probably irrational) fear of some nut pushing people onto the tracks, or strollers rolling onto them, etc.

      The ‘shape the space’ bit in the column really connected with my interest in being practical. It reminded me of the DAAP building and what a nightmare in architectural functionality that is.