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Tag Archives: walkability

Walking: Is it Just for Charity?

20 Apr

This made me laugh…uncontrollably.

There was an absolutely wonderful series written by Tom Vanderbilt in Slate last week titled, American’s Pedestrian Problem. In it he lamented that whenever he went on a walk for utilitarian purposes, people responded with “Are you doing it for charity?” How hilarious, and how sad. But it’s the truth. Today when people go on long walks it’s usually for breast cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, aids, or most ironically, diabetes. We act like going for a walk, the most instinctual human behavior, is something so unique and special that people give money for it.

America’s Pedestrian Problem by Tom Vanderbilt

While I found the data and science of pedestrian behavior and determining the walk score of my new neighborhood (82 out of 100 baby!) extremely interesting, valuable, and entertaining, the last series, “Learning to Walk” struck me the most. What first caught my attention was the title. How ironic that as a 28-year-old car owner, I am not dissimilar from my 8 month old nephew preparing to take his first steps. But what really struck a chord was that this article stressed what urban designers have been taught at the center of their practice, and what very few planners, especially transportation planners, don’t understand: people are inherently lazy (or perhaps call it evolutionary smart), ie: we make the easiest choice.

Perfect example? The little worn paths across the quads on your college campus. Mr. Vanderbilt makes a great point: college students carry the stereotype of having the most leisurely travel times and distances compared to your typical Manhattaner for instance. And boy are there pathways galore across a college campus (perhaps the most pedestrian oriented places on earth), and yet you will still find those little worn paths. Diagonally across the quad, at the corner where two paths meet, and directly up to the “do not walk on grass” sign. If my memory serves me correctly I think I was subject to work-study if I walked on the grass at my boarding school leading up to the prestigious graduation ceremonies. This is the perfect evidence that people choose the easiest path, even if it’s making one of their own.

So why do some planners think shepherding pedestrians a quarter of a mile down a busy arterial to cross at an intersection instead of allowing them the shortest distance between their location and their destination reasonable? And why do they always blame a person for doing any differently? Because at the end of the day, if those planners had to walk in the same conditions (which they most likely don’t…at all), they would probably make the same choice. We must step away from “if we build it, they will come” and move towards designing the built environment to reflect human behavior…as it naturally exists.

A common occurrence: pedestrian barriers. I have actually walked in the street to avoid these to take the shortest route. (twango.com)

Mr. Vanderbilt tells an absolutely heart-braking and infuriating story as an illustration that no doubt will haunt me as the reality of how this country, especially the part I live in, is moving so painstakingly slowly in its progress. Along Austell Road in Marietta, Georgia, a woman who was crossing the street with her four children was charged for manslaughter for the death of her own son…wait for it, instead of the car driver, in possession of a hit and run record, who hit him. You got it, she wasn’t behind the wheel. But because she jaywalked instead of walking her whole family, with 8 short little legs, an additional 2/3 of a mile out of the way of their home, she was first sentenced to more time in jail then the driver.

Holy cow. Any one else furious?

Mr. Vanderbilt’s other interesting tidbits include explanations of why we see narrow sidewalks up against roads with 6 lanes of traffic…transportation engineers wanted to protect drivers from hitting the trees that often lined them to protect pedestrians. So now? Pedestrians are up for a good mow down. I guess the plus side for drivers is that unlike trees, pedestrians have a slight chance of jumping out of the way. This mindset turned into a nasty cycle: because people no longer felt comfortable walking along roads, they stopped, and the lack of pedestrians encouraged some planners to eradicate sidewalks all together. Even today with such a large culture shift in the profession, when shown how concepts of shared space and other pedestrian-oriented street designs significantly improve safety for all users versus bollards and flashing lights that try to corral humans like cattle, some planners still focus on the liability of drivers.The culture of having to make room for people, instead of having to make room for cars, is alive and well… Unfortunately.

Culture shifts take ages, absolute lifetimes. It’s my belief that we will make more of an impact if we stop telling people what not to do, and start encouraging them to make the right decisions. As I have said before, urban design and the built environment is about providing people with choice. When people have a choice, it empowers them, and the result is that they will often chose the right one just by being given it. Telling people what to do and threatening them with big flashing lights and big signs on the side of the road can encourage them to do the opposite. Barbara McCann, a pioneer of the Complete Streets concept, states in this article, “The road itself should send signals. If you have a road with 12-foot lanes and clear zones, it’s safe for you to open up the throttle and you see the pedestrian scuttling across the road and think ‘they’re in my way.’ ” But add a raised crosswalk, trees, and narrow the road, says McCann, and “this is signaling to you, without a stop sign, that there are going to be all these other users, that you need to pay attention.”

Mr. Vanberbilt’s series is full of many great observations, but I will end with this one. There is a difference between providing facilities and providing facilities that will actually be used. As part of a public consultation exercise in a very auto-centric part of Florida recently, a planner for the Department of Transportation was complaining that when people beg for sidewalks in places, DOT builds them, and then they don’t get used. Other planners think that just by providing a bike lane that it will get used. Peter Lagerway, formerly a transportation engineer with the city of Seattle, explains there is a “three-legged stool” required to make walking desirable: safety, accessibility, and aesthetics. If the public realm doesn’t achieve these three things, people will not want to walk there. Just because there is a sidewalk, doesn’t mean that it is pleasing or safe for a pedestrian. The same is true for bicycle lanes. It is a mistake to assume that a cyclist is as hardened as a driver. I would be happy to ride a bike on my short 1.5 mile commute to work if my own lane was shielded from drivers by a physical and aesthetic barrier, but there is no way I’m tangoing with the some of the worst drivers in America.

As a novice cyclist what I want my cycle lanes to look like vs. what they actually look like. Shout out to Denver and Boulder for getting this right.

(Source)(Source)(Source)(Source)

I think after reading Tom Vanderbilt’s enlightened series, you might feel a little downtrodden. There is no doubt that the final installment shows how far we must go as a country to provide our citizens with the basic human right of using their own two feet, but there should be encouragement found in the second and third articles. There has been a huge increase in the knowledge of human science and behavior, as well as an increase in walkability in some of the most auto-dependent cities. The awareness is here, mostly, and admitting that we have a problem is the first step to recovery.
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17 Feb

Check out the Ink and Compass blog for some interesting facts on how Americans’ housing desires have started to shift. However, in my opinion, not fast enough. Can someone tell me who those people are who would extend their daily commute by 40 minutes? But for those 75% who want walkability, 60% who want mixed-uses, and the 88% who crave a sense of community, the design of the physical environment must start meeting their needs.

Ink & Compass

I’ve heard it said, and have often repeated, that one can get used to living in a smaller house (or condo or apartment), but you never get used to a long commute. After decades of continued car-dependent sprawl, maybe we’re all finally cluing in. Or maybe not.

According to the 2011 Community Preference Survey that outlines what Americans look for when deciding where to live:

Six in ten (59%) would choose a smallerhouse and lot if it meant a commute time of 20 minutes or less. Four in ten (39%) would stick with the larger houses even if their commute was 40 minutes or longer

OK, so we’re not exactly all on the same page here.

A couple other interesting factoids from the survey:

1) We want to walk.  More than three quarters of Americans consider having sidewalks and places to  walk one of their top priorities.

2) In fact…

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Travel Series: Savannah

30 Jan

Every year since I was born my family and I have gone to the beach in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. A 33 mile drive down the coast is one of the most beautiful and well-planned cities in America: Savannah, GA. Savannah was established in 1733 and is rich in history. The city played a large part in the American Revolution as a port city in the cotton-rich south. But perhaps its saving grace was that it was spared as the ending point in Sherman’s March to the Sea across Georgia. General Sherman of the Union Army on his quest to capture Savannah burned down most towns and fields that he passed by, including the capital city of Atlanta. Because of Savannah’s usefulness as a port city, it was saved instead and presented to President Lincoln as a Christmas gift. Even today when you visit Atlanta, it is comparatively void of any physical history of its colonial days. Savannah on the other hand is rich in historic architecture and planning.

Savannah is often overlooked for its grander and more visited counterpart to the north: Charleston. Charleston is located on a sound with direct views of the Atlantic Ocean, filled with large, historic mansions, and was the start of the Civil War. While Savannah’s historic homes are more modest in size, its genius masterplan and open space steals my heart as an urban designer.

Historic map of Savannah showing the connected network of streets and public, open squares. (http://www.sonofthesouth.net/leefoundation/civil-war/1865/january/savannah-map.jpg)

Savannah has many landmarks that any tourist should see, including one of my favorites, the home where Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island. But what any visitor will appreciate is the network of open squares, each with their own history, personality, and community identity. Savannah is designed around town square parks (each numbered in the map above.) These still remain, serving as anchors of the street network that connects them all together. My favorite part of the masterplan was the strategy behind it: self-defense.

Described as a British “social reformer, visionary, and military leader”, James Edward Oglethorpe discovered, founded, and designed Savannah as a trustee of the Georgian colony. I can’t help but feel a personal connection to this urban designer: he is from the small village of Godalming, Surrey where some of my best friends currently live. He studied in Oxford where I received my two masters. He set sail from Gravesend, Kent, close to my husband’s hometown, for Georgia. And of course, he designed my favorite city.

The legend alive and well in Savannah is that Oglethorpe was very much aware of a possible British threat of violence and designed the city to protect itself. With no telephone or means to connect quickly with one another, the idea was that if one person stands in the center of a town square and yells urgent news in four directions to another person standing in those town squares, it would quickly spread across the city. No need for Paul Revere or his horse!

Of course today we are safe from the threat of the British, but Oglethorpe’s design has an infinite amount of positive effects that has made Savannah the unique and sustainable city that it is today. Here are some of those:

  1. Safety – perimeter blocks perfectly intersected with the network of town squares allows all public space to be completely overlooked and monitored.
  2. Personalization – with each district having its own green space, the town squares easily transform to host formal neighborhood festivals and informal get-togethers by members of the local community. It is popular to even get married at the center of your town square.
  3. Connection with Heritage – town squares are named after historic generals and town leaders, and they often have a statue in their honor at the center of each. This allow residents to appreciate where they have come from and understand how it has shaped themselves and their community.
  4. Walkability – I have never been to a city that provides a more enjoyably walkable environment. Because public spaces are so connected to one another, perimeter blocks are a manageable size, and buildings are built at a high density, you can easily navigate the town.
  5. Legibility – Because each town square has its own identity and connected by an axial and rigid street network, the city is very legible. You always know where you are, and how to get to where you are going.
  6. Variety – Even though Savannah’s street network grid is rigid and similar to New York City’s, it offers an enormous amount of variety. The interruption of the grid by the town squares creates interesting visual views in streetscape and tree pattern that constantly and pleasantly surprise the pedestrian.
  7. Flexibility – the city’s town square and street network allowed it to be easily added on to. It often was, growing exponentially between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, to a total of 28 districts (each organized around a town square.) The city was able to grow organically, but still to this day be part of a well-connected and integrated masterplan.

The City of Savannah has done an amazing job at preserving the historic masterplan and the heritage that it represents. Of the 28 original town squares, 21 still exist. Most of seven that were lost were to make way for necessities that required larger plots including a courthouse and convention center. Perhaps the greatest legacy of this city is that it is now a teaching tool in placemaking and how to create unique developments. There is no doubt that when exploring the streets of Savannah, one can easily and simultaneously connect with the history of our country and the future of sustainable city planning

For further reading please click here for a fascinating entry from The New Georgia Encyclopedia.

A great architectural drawing showing how building relate to the Savannah street and town square network. (http://www.planning.org/greatplaces/spaces/2009/gallery03/image01.jpg)

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