quote of the week II: illusions of walkability


We are stuck in a narrative of a city being great and fabulous and walkable because it appears so (i.e. those sidewalks look pretty and nice, and I would walk down them if I felt like it and wasn’t driving to the store right now), not because it actually is.

— An unsigned but must-read post by PRAIRIEFORM

 The city of reference in the post is Minneapolis, but the point is a much broader and more nuanced one.



9 Responses to quote of the week II: illusions of walkability

  1. Mike January 25, 2012 at 1:08 pm #

    I find walkability has sometimes more to do with attitude than design.
    I know people who live in the heart of major downtowns with amazing streets, and everything they need within walking distance, or a short streetcar ride away. Yet they drive everywhere.
    I know people who live in the suburbs who walk by choice to stores, even though that involves walking down what are considered unpleasant streets for pedestrians(the arterial road with backyard fences facing you).
    I have relatives in Italy who live in a town which is centuries old and which you could walk across in 10 minutes on foot. Yet they will drive just to go a couple blocks, despite the perfect walking environment.
    So overall I think today’s issues with walking have more to do with attitude than to do with the environment.
    Of course the environment is important. But other factors are at play.

  2. Alon Levy January 25, 2012 at 1:48 pm #

    Parking policy has a lot to do with these short-distance drives. I don’t know which Italian town your relatives live in, Mike, but in the Riviera’s border towns, Ventimiglia and Menton, it’s not too easy to find parking right in front of the store you want to go to. My parents drive because they live in Monaco, but if they lived in one of these towns, a few hundred meters from their destination, they’d walk. (In Monaco, they drive even those few hundred meters, because parking is much more easily available, and in addition the terrain discourages walking.)

  3. Sid Burgess January 25, 2012 at 2:08 pm #

    Wow, hadn’t seen that blog before. Added it to my reading list. Thanks Jarrett!

  4. anonymouse January 25, 2012 at 3:39 pm #

    @Mike Attitude can tell you about whether a given person will or will not walk. But that’s not really what we’re interested in here. We want to know aggregate statistics: what percentage of people will walk in a given area, and other things along those lines. And that’s something that depends on the relative attractiveness and effectiveness of walking, and various other factors, like trip-chaining. If you’re already driving to work, it’s more likely that you’ll drive by the supermarket on your way home. If, on the other hand, you can stop by a food store on your walk home from the train station, it’s less likely that you’ll need to drive to the supermarket.

  5. Jack Horner January 26, 2012 at 12:22 am #

    In other words, what matters most for walkability is not how pretty the footpath is, but whether there is something worth walking to, and how far away it is.

  6. Jonathan January 26, 2012 at 2:58 am #

    The walking environment isn’t unimportant, though. Even if walking is faster, people will drive if it is safer and more comfortable – particularly if the build environment actively discourages walking.
    Up-zoning is needed to bring about a dense environment with lots of destinations within walking distance. And a city can show a commitment to that by both doing the up-zoning and creating the supporting walkable infrastructure.
    There are also tangential benefits. Planting trees locks up some carbon, and serves to reduce the speed of water-runoff. Breaking up sight-lines has been shown to have a calming effect on traffic (both increasing walker safety and reducing driving’s advantage by reducing speed).

  7. Miles Bader January 26, 2012 at 8:06 pm #

    I think it’s not that pretty isn’t good; walkable and beautiful aren’t incompatible (I spent a few years in Edinburgh, and was constantly amazed how jaw-droppingly lovely and walkable it was; even after walking the same routes for years, it never got old), it’s just that in practice it seems that there are other factors that may be more important, and “pretty” isn’t enough.
    Many extremely walkable cities aren’t really “pretty” in a conventional sense. I’d say offhand that “interesting” may be more important: having many pedestrian accessible shops etc (so there’s a sense of constant “possibility” no matter where you are), having a street layout/environment that prevents walking from seeming like a long slog (and maintains a sort of local-scale “slight tension”, “something’s just around the bend”), having enough pedestrian traffic to avoid a feeling of barrenness, variation in architecture to avoid a feeling of monotony, etc.

  8. Jack Horner January 29, 2012 at 1:12 am #

    @Miles Bader
    “Something just around the bend” – well put. Example: the pedestrianed centre of Copenhagen.
    Of course it’s a little harder to arrange this in new world 19th century rectangular street grids. But should not be impossible, with care and imagination.

  9. Al Dimond January 30, 2012 at 1:00 am #

    American cities can be spread out, sure… but isn’t WalkScore all about what you can walk to within a short radius of a place?
    I’m going to go with the mentality argument. If the best price on bread (or gas, for that matter) is across town we’ll drive for it; if some of our favorite things to do are in a place we can’t get to on foot we’ll drive there repeatedly. The other piece of the picture is, of course, transit — even great walkable neighborhoods don’t have everything you need within quick reach. In a place with great transit you’ll walk more because you’re walking to and from transit stops instead of driving from door to door.