The most popular neighborhoods and cities in the United States have one feature in common: they are walkable. From Jane Jacob’s West Village in New York City to Santa Monica’s oceanfront to San Francisco’s North Beach, Hayes Valley and Mission Districts, it is the vibrant street life driven by pedestrians not cars that makes the difference. Jeff Speck, a co-author of the classic Suburban Nation, describes how to create these thriving city environments in a new book, Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time
(the subtitle is misleading, as Speck focuses on cities and urban neighborhoods, not simply downtowns). Speck has taken his extensive experience to come up with “The Ten Steps of Walkability” that local governments should take to make their cities more vibrant and pedestrian-friendly. Speck pulls no punches in describing the chief obstacles to walkable cities, which include traffic engineers and traffic studies. His candor makes for a book that is both lively and persuasive; Speck also provides the research to support his conclusion that walkable neighborhoods are healthier, more enjoyable, and central to economic revitalization.
While reading Walkable Cities
I attended a San Francisco Board of Supervisors hearing on the city’s ambitious Better Market Street plan
. It is designed to improve pedestrian safety, transit, public space and bicycling on the city’s main corridor, actions all strongly endorsed by Jeff Speck. Testimony from planners and transit activists, and well as the two supervisors at the hearing, all reflected an understanding of the strategies for urban revitalization Speck promotes.
But an alternative and potentially dissenting view came from the source that Speck sees as the biggest obstacle to walkable cities: traffic engineers. In a section titled “Kill the Traffic Engineers First,” he cites legendary urban activist Jane Jacobs on how this “incurious profession pulls its conclusions about the meaning of evidence out of thin air--sheer guesswork---even when it does deign to notice evidence.”
In the case of San Francisco’s Market Street, traffic engineers are pushing the idea of turning what should become the city’s leading pedestrian corridor into a bus thoroughfare
. Bicycles would be shifted from Market to Mission. This plan would reduce walkability on Market and represents exactly the opposite of what Speck recommends---yet, as he shows in many cities, the “credentials” of traffic engineers often overcome the public will and common sense.
Speck frequently praises San Francisco for promoting walkability, and much of this book will sound familiar to those who have attended transit hearings in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and other cities whose political leadership values active pedestrian street life. He bolsters all of the familiar arguments with up to the minute studies on almost every component of walkability, which makes the book a particularly valuable resource.
A Hands-On Approach
Speck’s own role in designing walkable streets connects his arguments to actual urban realities. His approach may be too hands-on for those preferring more theoretical land use analyses, but I think most people trying to improve neighborhoods will appreciate his discussions of such subjects as the best sidewalk widths and why adjacent parking entices pedestrian walking.
Speck makes a particularly compelling case for walkability as an economic revitalization and development strategy. He cites numerous studies showing that walkability raises real estate values, and polls showing that people prefer living in urban areas that are walkable.
He shows how cities from Portland to Miami attract a “creative class” of residents due to their walkability, and how these residents divert money saved on cars to supporting local bookstores and other neighborhood-serving businesses. In contrast, non-walkable cities like Phoenix have seen below level income and innovation growth.
Walkability advocates make such a compelling case that even a new generation of traffic engineers is recognizing that one-way streets, wide highways, and wider car lanes worsen a community’s quality of life. While billions continue to be wasted on these measures and other failed approaches like expanded freeways, Speck identifies enough cities that understand the right approach that there is reason for optimism.
Speck sometimes gets his facts wrong. For example, he says that he has spoken with blind-people about audio pedestrian signals, but then wrongly concludes that “those annoying chirping signals” are “unnecessary in a standard non-push button crosswalk, where the visually impaired can hear and predict the direction of traffic.” The truth is that leading organizations representing blind people have pushed for Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS)
(using alternatives to the chirping sound), with San Francisco being the national leader on this critical pedestrian safety issue.
Similarly, few will agree that “most American cities do not need more affordable housing in their downtowns,” and that most actually have “too much affordable housing.” Speck’s “two powerful remedies” for increasing affordability-- inclusionary zoning and in-law apartments (which he calls “granny flats.”) ignore tax credits, nonprofit development and other means of affordable housing construction. But his errors on these ancillary points do not detract from his central arguments.
Anyone involved in convincing local or state bodies to make cities more walkable should be familiar with Walkable Cities. It includes facts, information, and analysis that planning commissioners, transit officials and yes, traffic engineers need to read---and hopefully be convinced by.
Randy Shaw is Editor of BeyondChron. He is the author of The Activist’s Handbook
and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century