Book: Keep Walkers in Mind to Improve the Urban Place

February 11, 2013

by Teya Vitu

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

By Jeff Speck

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012

The new book “Walkable City” is not really about walking.

It’s about streets, buildings, trees, sidewalks, bicycles, buses, streetcars, parking and mixed-use development. It’s about everything that gives a place cachet, where restaurants and shops like to cluster, where people like to cluster, where the sidewalk is where the action is. Those things that give a place a buzz and make them candidates for the sorts of lists that Portland and Austin routinely headline.walkable book

And the common thread for all of that is how walkable the place is. That’s the theme urban planner Jeff Speck elaborates upon in “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time.”

So indeed the book is about walking. But not really.

Walkability does not mean pedestrian features such as better sidewalks, crossing signals, streetlights and trash cans. In fact, Speck draws a clear distinction between pedestrian and walkable.

Walkability revolves around four basic conditions for Speck. The walk must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting – four conditions that are rarely found in American cities and all four are required to achieve walkability.

Useful means that all aspects of daily life are just a walk away. Safe is obvious. Comfortable addresses engaging buildings in favor of open space (what Speck calls “missing teeth”: parking lots, empty lots, even parks), which kills the walking mood. “Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound,” Speck writes.

Speck delivers 10 steps of walkability that essentially runs down the basic city planner check list – but from the pedestrian’s perspective rather than the auto-centric traffic engineer.

The useful walk involves Step 1: put cars in their place; Step 2: mix the uses; Step 3: get the parking right; and Step 4: let transit work.

The safe walk tackles Step 5: protect the pedestrian and Step 6: welcome bikes.

The comfortable walk delves into Step 7: shape the spaces; and Step 8: plant trees.

The interesting walk encourages Step 9: make friendly and unique faces and Step 10: pick your winners (urban triage).

Tucson is mentioned in footnotes for the back-in parking and bicycle boulevards, both favorably welcomed by Speck.

Walkability, for Speck, revolves around housing, the right kind of urban housing, usually cloaked with the phrase “mixed-use development.” There needs to be a balance among these mixed uses.

“What is that balance? Better to ask: what do humans do? Work, shop, eat, drink, learn, recreate, convene, worship, heal, visit, celebrate, sleep: these are all activities that people should not have to leave downtown to accomplish. While there are exceptions, most large and midsized American downtowns possess a good supply of all of the above except places to sleep, lost to the twentieth-century suburban exodus.”

For Tucson, it’s sleep and shop.

Speck finds that a three-step process is essential to achieve such a transformation: Politics, permitting and pathfinding.

He defines politics as changing attitudes of city council members to embrace downtown housing projects.

For permitting, Speck endorses “special permits” for Downtown projects rather than trying to shoehorn suburban standards into a downtown setting. This especially applies to parking requirements.

“Pathfinding refers to setting up an extensive regime of hand-holding from city staff to walk developers through the tricky process of winning every available federal and state subsidy, including historic preservation tax credits and community renewal block grants,” he writes.

The Downtown Tucson Partnership’s economic development office provides precisely such hand-holding with a catalog of some 200 local, state, federal and private sector grants, loans, tax credits and a slew of other types of assistance that many entrepreneurs could qualify for but may never find on their own.

Then there’s the rediscovered streetcar phenomenon of the past 20 years across the country. Speck quotes recently elected Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who was the biggest proponent for that city’s streetcar while on the city council: “You can’t just drop in a streetcar.”

Tucson, curiously, wants to follow the hugely successful Portland model, beyond getting Portland’s actual streetcars. “Portland’s streetcar succeeded as a tool for increasing urban vibrancy because it was first a tool for neighborhood development. This fact is important… because it is a mistake to promote a streetcar in the absence of a major real estate opportunity,” Speck writes.

Portland created the upscale business and art gallery oriented Pearl District from what was the Northwest Industrial Triangle. The streetcar links the Pearl to Downtown. Tucson will have a streetcar running alongside the Tucson Convention Center surface parking lots and 14 acres of undeveloped land on the West Side – both prime targets for large scale urban development, largely earmarked for high-density housing.

But Speck warns that streetcars have pitfalls. Streetcars are more likely to succeed because of existing popular pedestrian districts rather than create pedestrian hubs.

“In places like Memphis, Tampa and Little Rock, streetcars have done little to add pedestrian life to the sleepy Main Streets they inhabit, and their ridership is paltry at best,” Speck wrote. “None of these small systems connect to a larger rail network, so they don’t offer a regional mobility that allows people to leave the car at home.”

Speck is an advocate for reducing roadways, removing driving lanes, even removing streets.

“For the most part, cities support either driving or everything else… Higher transit equals higher walking,” Speck writes. “The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce roads or increase the cost of using them.”

Street parking is a science that goes beyond storefront parking. For example, parked cars are the best safety feature for pedestrians. If there is an either/or for a traffic lane or street parking, Speck would sacrifice the traffic lane.

“If they are truly to offer an alternative to the automobile, bikes and trolleys must displace moving cars, not parked ones,” he writes.

The big bugaboo to walkability is car dependency, especially prevalent in Western states, markedly so in Tucson.

“How do you create a transit – a walking culture – in a place where driving is so easy? It may not be possible,” Speck writes.

But he does not give up that easily. He said successful transit, transit that prods people to leave cars at home, relies on four conditions: urbanity, clarity, frequency, pleasure.

For urbanity, significant stops can’t be located a block away from the heart of the action. “Riders should be able to fall into the bus from a stool at a coffee shop,” he writes.

“Clarity means a route that is a simple line or loop, with as few diversions as possible,” he continues.

Frequency of service is the death-knell for any hopes to get someone out of a car and into a bus. Twenty-minute waits, 30-minute waits, one hour waits just don’t cut it.

“Ten-minute headways are the standard for any line that hopes to attract a crowd,” Speck writes. “If you can’t fill a bus at that rate, then get a van.”

A vital transit system has a hard side and soft side.

“The hard side is all about not wasting people’s time and the soft side is about making them happy,” Speck writes. “If you can commit to doing both, then you can get people out of their cars.”

Getting people out of their cars is the hallmark for spawning a walkable city.