#designingcities: walkability

Update: latest article on the world’s most walkable city

Notes from the walkability lecture of #designingcities week 7 plus some other bits and pieces from #mapmooc.

Many older neighbourhoods of cities are walkable, while more modernist areas are difficult to navigate on foot, organised to make driving almost a necessity.  Foot power is the oldest form of locomotion, and may be the most relevant for a future where  we seek to minimise energy usage and carbon levels.

What constitutes walkability, and how can it be designed into communities?

The idea of creating walkable communities is making a comeback. Surveys suggest that more than half of Americans would like to live in a place where they could walk to the important places, but they can’t find a place that meets those needs. The subject has taken on new urgency for other reasons, public health among them.

What makes a community walkable?

  • easy to live there without having a car – you can find most everything you need in a typical week
  • public transport – never more than a few blocks away, 15 minutes away
  • density – 45,000 people per square mile, there are plenty of people to support the shops, also density of eg shops – large schools and shopping centres call for cars
  • safe to walk along the street throughout the day and evening

Street patterns matter almost as much as density in promoting walkability. Most people will walk ten minutes to a desired destination. A typical grid pattern of older American cities makes it easier to walk in all directions to reachshops or institutions, but the same ten minute walk will get you to far fewer places if the streets are winding and circuitous. And in many neighborhoods sidewalks are narrow, poorly maintained, exposed to the hot sun and face uninteresting properties.

Other impediments to those on foot:

  • in Bogota property owners have grabbed control of the sidewalks
  • in Bangkok, as in many other cities, the sidewalks are broken and have become parking lots
  • in Beijing – and increasingly in Copenhagen – pedestrians lose out to bicycle parking in the competition for the use of sidewalks

Where the city government takes a stand in organising sidewalks and adjoining property owners cooperate, walking can again become an option.

So density, modest setbacks, shade and sidewalks in good repair all contribute to walkability, but the most important determinant is having a walkable commercial centre within easy reach, with

  • a rich variety of shops, mostly locally oriented
  • a varied commercial area offering restaurants, and other services, including leisure

As traditional shopping centres become obsolete it may be possible to retrofit these areas to become walkable centres, organising arterial streets as more pedestrian friendly boulevards and adding new development that fronts on them. Then higher density development, with people living above the shops. As the streets become more bicycle and pedestrian friendly the number of people that find their way there will grow and the centre will prosper.

Walkable commercial areas also make good economic sense. Comparable properties and walkable areas sell or rent for considerably more than those that are in areas that rely only on automobile access. There’s a huge job to retrofit today’s suburbs to become more walkable (see the Urban sprawl repair kit), but at  the very least we can ensure that all new development offers people a choice of walking, cycling, sharing vehicles and using transit, as well as using their private automobile.


Via #mapmooc:

Walk Score (methodology):

  • computes how close the everyday necessities for living are to any location in a city, plus a a commute score, transit score and biking score for some areas and a travel time map for walking, cycling, public transport and driving
  • covers US, Canada and Australia, but also other areas to a limited extent, eg Edinburgh, 35 Cammo Grove (dependent on the places people have added to the map??)
  • the Walk Score App allows you to provide information about ‘problem spots’ (eg crime, no bike lanes, no sidewalks) and upload photos
  • no crowdsourced rankings – could a community mapping project come up with a more comprehensive score? see Living Streets audits 
  • other factors which influence how people feel about walkability not taken into account include topography and road and urban design factors; see some work; there is more to walkability than simple proximity to amenities, eg are streets are difficult or dangerous to cross, crime, time of day, events going on, whether you are alone or not, gender , sidewalks, trees – just because an area can be walked, doesn’t mean you want to walk there
  • parks, bikes and walking trail, schools, playgrounds and other places of interest not included
  • adjustable settings – what’s walkable for a teenager may be different from what’s walkable for a senior citizen; Walk Score starts deducting points once a walk is over 0.25 miles (and gives zero points after 1 mile)
  • the transit score algorithm only gives half as many points for buses as for rail
  • walkability has a correlation with the safety and ‘community’ feel of a city, can overcome weather and terrain, but the score can vary: ” I live in Phoenix AZ. In the summer, I’d estimate that the walkability drops to about 10 but in the winter it soars to about 75″; “it’s way too hot and humid to be doing a lot of walking in Florida”

#mapmoocer Tony Targonski created a map of Seattle on an earlier Coursera MOOC: “Larger circles mean more social activity. Greener colour represents more “positive” than expected; redder is less “positive” than expected. In this case “positive” refers to valence (a commonly used measure of sentiment), and “expected” is the predicted valence score based on the Walk Score of the block (overall more walkable places correlate with more positive sentiment).”

Which is an interesting point IRT Happy Denmark. They’re not happy, they just bike a lot (like I didn’t know).

Updates: why do we walk where we do? How measuring brainwaves could improve cities. Walkonomics’ latest research. Where we live now on The growth of social media data on places, and its implications. London Walkability Model.


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