Walkability (book chapter, 1995)

[from Zielinski and Laird (1995) Beyond the Car: Essays on the Auto Culture, Toronto, Canada: Steel Rail Press and Transportation Options, pp. 165-70]

Copyright by the author

“Walkability” is a quality of place, one that is being eroded daily throughout the world.  Most of us are losing the environment around our homes where we are comfortable walking and socializing with neighbours.  Without these public areas working for us. we come and go from our homes across space that has lost its ‘placeness’ — space that might as well be a moat, with our automobiles functioning like a drawbridge.

Until recent times, few people lived their lives at scales above the city or regional levels.  Today, people favour jobs that operate in loftier orbits and favour international news to local news, and buy few locally produced goods; but they still live many aspects of their lives in a fairly local way.

The problem is, we are losing the street- and neighbourhood-level infrastructure that has always supported our localized lifestyles.  Neighbourhood streets have become feeders for the city-scale roads.  Social agencies have limited or abandoned neighbourhood and street level visiting of the sick and elderly.  The child, who needs to have ever-widening contiguous space as she or he grows, is no longer allowed independent access to the front yard and street until she or he is too old to have much use for them.   A closer look at our habits, homes, streets, and neighbourhoods illuminates where this degradation of “localness” and “walkability” has come from.

To start off, the automobile — a vehicle more suited to the freeways and rural roads — has taken over all our streets.  As a society, we now accept that streets are dangerous and dirty.  Drivers are not held responsible for pedestrian deaths and injuries — rather pedestrians or their guardians are.  The streets reflect “might makes right”, rather than “the more you wield, the more you yield” relationship that exists between boats on the waterways.

Furthermore, the automobile has been transformed from a family vehicle to a personal appliance.  We’ve gone from the pre-fifties way of sharing cars with neighbours and families, to the present situation, where even family members refuse to share.

This shift from the communal to the personal is even more apparent inside of our homes.  The telephone, the radio, the computer, the stereo, first enjoyed collectively by the family, are designed to be provided for each member.  The kitchen has a large refrigerator and many selves to store the wide array of
foods and beverages preferred by the individual members.  And the addition of _en suite_ baths and “family” rooms allows parents and children to avoid contact.

At the level of street infrastructure, human-scale amenities are in disrepair, are being dismantled or were never installed in the first place.  If there are benches, they are designed not for be comfortable and are probably not kept up.  If there are sidewalks, they respectfully dip at each private driveway to
avoid jolting the owner while she or he drives across it.  Trees are either removed or severely cut back by utility firms — or are removed completely by skittish traffic engineers.  Corner sidewalks are rebuilt with a more gentle curve to allow easier turns by trucks — and faster turns by automobiles.  Porches have lost their seating and social function.  The lawns and gardens of
rehabilitated townhouses are replaced by steep driveways servicing basement garages.

Finally, the human-scale commerce and shopping that used to fill our neighbourhoods have all but disappeared.  The stores in newer areas are neither local nor reachable by foot.  The are located  not in the centre of a community but on the edge, where they can be seen by the thousands of drivers each day.  The four- or six-lane divided streets onto which the stores face — across their barren parking lots — are uncrossable by foot, except by using the huge, complex, pedestrian-unfriendly intersections a half-kilometre away.  In older neighbourhoods, the shops line the streets that once invited crossing by foot.  Although some have been given cutesy, pedestrian-oriented face-lifts, the on-street parking remains cut back and turn lanes are lengthened to increase through-traffic capacity.

These shifts toward the individualization and away from the localized, human scale of previous urban generations have resulted in cities that are designed for car drivers, and car drivers alone.  To become a car driver you pretty much have to be active, affluent, and adult (“AAA”).  The landscape is designed for 50 kilometres an hour, not 5 kilometres per hour.  If you are
young, old, or disabled, you stay inside or you go out with a guardian in tow, usually ferried about in a car or bus.  If you are poor, transit and long walks under inhospitable conditions are your lot.  These people are not only denied the human scale and lively streets they need, but they now need more income to buy the “solutions” — a car and a “better” neighbourhood.

There is a number of ways that car drivers negatively affect non-drivers.  People in cars reduce demand for transit by not using it and hurt its speed by demanding that it not get in their way.  Their excessive and impatient driving increases danger on the road for those who walk and ride bicycles; during foul weather, they splash water on the travelers not in cars.  Car driver
reduce the number of what Jane Jacobs calls “eyes on the street”.  As a
result, the sense of ownership of public places decreases and the feeling of vulnerability to crime increases.  Finally, car drivers use their political influence to push for better driving conditions at the expense of a good walking environment: for example, wider streets and intersections are increasingly dangerous for those not driving.  All of these things reduce
options and safety for no car-drivers.

This brings us back to the issue of walkability.  I believe that I live in one of North America’s most walkable neighbourhoods.  Unfortunately, its housing is also among the highest-priced in my city.  Last year, homeowners and business owners faced steep increases in property taxes, as levies were switched to market values.  Many of my neighbours challenged the change with the argument that the market value of one’s property does not necessarily reflect one’s ability to pay taxes.  Others argued differently: the average person in our neighbourhood is more likely to walk and therefore has _less_ need for the municipal-level infrastrucutre paid for by property taxes.

This got me thinking.  I had always liked the idea of being able to measure this quality called “walkability”.  But now there might be a very important use for it.  I mused: what if a collection of such measurements — in the form of a rating system or index — could be used in calculating property taxes and, for new buildings, the initial development fee?  This may seem unfair, since it comes close to being an example of user-pay, but would be applied not to the individual or the household, but to the basic unit of walkability, the street block and the neighbourhood.

Applying a walkability index to taxes and development charges raises the question, Shouldn’t it be limited only to the portion that applies to transportation infrastructure?

No.  The effects of walkability are beneficial over a far broader area.  The walkable neighbourhood makes fewer demands on the following services and resources:

* Roads and parking facilities: because of shorter trips and smaller modes, the walkable neighbourhoods make less use of roads and parking, and the land and maintenance costs that they represent.

* Transit: transit subsidies are lower or perhaps non-existent for those living in walkable neighbourhoods because there are more riders per mile, shorter trips (and therefore more fares per mile), more transit use in off-peak hours, and more bi-directional travel during the peak period.

* Police protection: the walkable neighbourhood provides a great deal more of its own surveillance, provides more jobs and activities for youths, and has fewer off-street parking lots where many assaults are committed.

* Density-sensitive services: garbage collection, underground pipes, the protection and generation administration are services that cost more where development is less dense.

* Social and health services: besides being sensitive to density, these services are also sensitive to the presence or lack of informally provided community services — best illustrated by people visiting sick neighbours, providing baby-sitting or even a ride to a doctor or job appointment.

* Economic development: the higher density, the mixed land use, the availability of a larger and more diverse work force, and the availability of marginal, “incubator” spaces and services makes these neighbourhoods more powerful generators of economic vitality.

With the social and political values of walkability in mind, I started to define my terms more specifically and to develop a “walkability index”.  As I see it, walkability has four main characteristics.

First, a walkable neighbourhood must be a “foot-friendly” environment.  It must have wide, level sidewalks, small intersections, narrow streets, lots of litter containers and benches, good lighting, and an absence of obstructions.
Second, it must have full range of useful, active destinations within walking distance — shops, services, employment, professional offices, recreation, and libraries.

Third, a walkable neighbourhood must have a natural environment that moderates the extremes of weather — rain and sunlight — and the absence of traffic drone, foul air, and layers of dirt and oil on everything.  Finally, it must have a local culture that values and supports active street life, including local commerce.

In order to assess a neighbourhood’s walkability specifically, you could apply the walkability index.  This index asks specific questions about a neighbourhood and how it is set up.  It includes questions about density, off-street parking, the number of benches, the chance of meeting someone you know on the street, how safe women feel on the streets and sidewalks, and access to public space by children.

Applying the walkability index to your neighbourhood and starting to think differently about how our communities are structured are both good steps toward a more satisfying, environmentally sustainable life.  But what else can we do?  Firstly, we need to rediscover the concept of the commons — the process of community working to sustain some lands for collective benefits.  This is usually thought of as a rural practice, but our streets and parks, and even the shops of our neighbourhood are — or, rather, were — part of the commons.

Secondly, we need to become, and help others to become “local heroes”.  This term comes from the film Local Heroes in which the main character successfully resists the attempts of a multinational company to convert the local economy and resources to a “higher use”.  In my mind a local hero is someone who is loyal to the idea of a local community and to the specific people and places within her or his community.  It is similar to the way that parents are loyal to the family, and more specifically to their family.

The first local heroes will need to be real leaders.  They will need to conceive and create new institutions and infrastructure for the local scale.  Here are some ideas that local heroes might pick up:

* Institute a way for members of the community to trade outside the global economic framework.  LETS, the local employment trading system, is one such concept.

* Reverse the dependency on the automobile by starting a “co-transportation” club that provides collective transportation solutions: car-sharing, community jitney service, and build and rent cargo-carrying bicycles and tricycles.  These allow members to reverse the upward spiral of transportation intensification by economically having access to only as much car transportation as is needed, and to have to plan trips in advance.

* Re-establish your neighbourhood’s heritage — its “placeness” — by preparing historic walking maps, by recording oral histories, by mounting art and photo exhibits, and by placing plaques at points of community significance.

* Be a PESt, a public environment steward, and protect and enhance your public areas by spending a lot more time in them and finding things they and the people who use them need: pick up trash, help people with directions, complain when a driver intimidates a vulnerable road user, help people cross the street or carry their large loads, report a burnt-out traffic light or a broken sidewalk, or do a little painting of a park fence or bench.

* If you have a green thumb, be a Jane or Johnny Greenseed.  Create gardens in public parks, help neighbours naturalize their lawns, plant and tend trees, trim shrubs in parks, or perhaps hassle utility companies which prune trees too zealously.

* Lead a community visioning exercise that addresses today’s problems and tomorrow’s collective hopes of your neighbourhood.

Use the vision to encourage your community associations to be more pro-active in planning, approaching owners of vacant or under-utilized property to provide needed community facilities or housing.  Make sure future change serves the local residents, not a multi-national’s “game plan” by establishing another homogenized outlet for their goods.  Afterwards, take
one of the projects and implement it with other residents and business people.

* Patronize local businesses and encourage new ones to form.  Encourage businesses that serve local needs and that sell locally-produced goods and services, that hire locally and that take active involvement in the local community.  These businesses don’t generate as much car traffic, they take more care of the areas around their premises, and they value employees more for their local knowledge and familiarity with their repeat customers.

* Start a DePoT, a delivery and point of transfer, the new form of the corner store that sells the most commonly purchased items, provides pick-up facilities for recyclables and the site for the block’s composter, is the drop-off point for all mail and deliveries, and provides dry-cleaning, photo-finishing, and catalogue-buying interfaces.

* Start a neighbourhood BBS — a computer bulletin board service — that links locals, rather than citizens of the new global “virtual reality”.

* Determine your neighbourhood’s walkability.  Using a “walkability index”, do a survey of the people in your neighbourhood — perhaps one should be done as part of the community visioning process.  By measuring its walkability, it friendliness, the quality of its micro-environment, and its
self-sufficiency, you are measuring its health, its civility, and its sustainability.  And you’ll have a way to compare it with other neighbourhoods — and with itself over time.

I hope these ideas can in some small way help in the rebuilding of the missing links in the continuity of urban life, the scales that are closest to the commons, the economic indicators, the cultural breeding ground, the feedback systems necessary for reducing humankind’s “footprint” on the earth and on each other.  Walkability is pretty close to livability, to healthy
communities, and to sustainability.  We can all relate to it.  And it relates so much to the quality of life, health, and community.

In my attempts to make walkability and a vital local community stronger in my part of the world, I sometimes turn to Wendell Berry’s essay Words and Flesh for inspiration and guidance:

The favourite adjective of [the environment] movement now seems to be “planetary”.  This word is used, properly enough, to refer to the interdependence of places, and to the recognition, which is desirable and growing, that no place on earth can become completely healthy until all
places are.  But the word “planetary” also refers to an abstract anxiety or an abstract passion that is desperate and useless exactly to the extent that it is abstract.  How, after all, can anybody — any particular body — do anything
to heal a planet?  The suggestions that anybody could do so is preposterous.  The heroes of abstraction keep galloping in on their white horse to save the planet and they keep falling off in front of the grandstand.  The only true and
effective “operator’s manual for spaceship earth” is not a book that any human will ever write; it is hundreds of thousands of local cultures.  Lacking an authentic local culture, a place is open to exploitation, and ultimately
destruction, from the centre”.

[Chris Bradshaw has conducted community consultation in regional and urban planning for the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton for the last 21 years.  His pedestrian activism begin in 1978.  He co-founded Ottawa in 1988 and has addressed the International Pedestrians Conference in Boulder, Colorado in 1988, 1990, and 1993.  He lives with his wife and two
daughters in Ottawa — all of whom walk to work and/or school.]


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