Some people will read a book from beginning to end, but many are browsers, nibbling here and there. Some people also 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.
The best 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 half 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 quite tall and authoritative, though with a disarmingly soft voice.) He glances into each meeting, listens for a minute, and then inserts the one idea that those people, working on that 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 influence on this part of the book, including commenting on a draft. Two sections (20 and 21) are based partly on my work and we exchanged ideas about some of the rest. So while this is definitely Jeff’s book, written from the standpoint of an urban designer rather than a transit planner, it would seem self-promoting to single this part out for praise. But it’s great. It says important things and it says them well.
Walkability is foundational to transit, of course, because every transit riders is a pedestrian. Speck and I disagree on a trivially small number of points (I defend countdown clocks at signals, for example.) Overall, Speck brilliantly describes not just the challenge of being a pedestrian and how to make it better, but also exactly how to shift each decision, all over city hall, to achieve that.