Walkability, Weaponized

Some people will read a book from beginning to end, but many are browsers, nibbling here and there.  Some people want to be told want to do, while fewer want to plumb the depths of why.  So it’s not surprising that we’re seeing more list-books, lists of things to do with only brief explanations of each.  Most are terrible.

The great list-books are by people who have written the long book first.  You can trust Michael Pollan’s fun book Food Rules — a set of memorable rules about how to recognize good food, each explained in a page — because it’s a summary of his longer book on the topic, In Defense of Food.  Likewise, you can trust Jeff Speck’s Walkable City Rules because it’s a summary of Walkable City, one of the most important books in modern urbanism.

Speck calls his new book “an effort to weaponize Walkable City for deployment in the field.”  War metaphors are appropriate, especially in the US, where so many pedestrians die on the roads, and so many more are forced to drive because it’s too scary to walk.

These rules are practical interventions in the decisions that local governments make every day.  As with transit, great walkability is not the result of “pedestrian planning.”  It arises mostly from other decisions that seem to be about other things: zoning, development review, street design, housing policy, parking policy, and even law enforcement.

Imagine Speck striding through your City Hall.  (He is tall, but with a disarmingly soft voice.)  He leans into each meeting, listens for a minute, and then inserts the one idea that those people, working on that exact issue, need to hear.  That’s what the book feels like.

Of course, you want me to comment on his treatment of transit, but full disclosure: I had a small role in this part of the book, including commenting on a draft.  Two sections are based partly on my work and we exchanged ideas about some of the rest.  So while this is definitely his book, written from the standpoint of an urban designer, it might seem self-promoting to single this part out for praise.  Having said that, it says important things and it says them well, in a language that policymakers will understand.

Speck and I disagree on a tiny number of points [1], but overall, this book brilliantly describes not just the challenge of being a pedestrian and how to make it better, but also exactly how to shift each decision to achieve that, in every room of City Hall, and beyond.

Jeff Speck. Walkable City Rules  Island Press, 2018.



[1] I defend countdown clocks at signals, while Speck wants to remove them.  And while he and I will never perfectly agree on how to talk about streetcars, his streetcar chapter is the most candid I’ve ever seen from someone in the urban design profession.

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