- April 1, 2017; Vol. 4, Number 4

The Drive to Walk: A ‘general theory of walkability’ and its component parts

by Mike Consol

There are fitness experts who argue that walking is the ultimate form of exercise. It’s simple, painless, requires no equipment and can be done just about anywhere. Similarly, there are urban planning and real estate development experts who argue that “walkability” is the ultimate indicator of the success of a real estate project or community.

Evidence is mounting that developments and communities that make it inviting for people to walk and offer them a real and perceived sense of destination maximize their opportunity for success. Urban planners have learned some interesting things, such as that crash statistics show when you double the size of a city block it nearly quadruples the number of fatal accidents on non-highway streets, according to a study conducted in 24 California cities. Also, when streets are widened to alleviate congestion, the traffic count increases and re-creates the congestion all over again (as well as encouraging people to live farther from work and commute by car). Line streets with trees and drivers naturally go slower and reduce traffic accidents. The trees themselves slow cars down.

People drive faster on wider streets, sensing they have been given the girth they need to apply the pent-up muscle under the hood. Portland, Ore., often hailed as a supremely walkable city, slammed the brakes on that dynamic when it instituted a Skinny Streets program in residential neighborhoods, making them safer for drivers and more amenable to pedestrians.

Portland has something else going for it: short pedestrian-friendly 200-foot blocks that walkers find easier to navigate. Contrast that with the notoriously pedestrian-unfriendly Salt Lake City where each block stretches 600 feet. The lesson: Break a city into smaller component parts and people find them more manageable — even inviting.

Alas, in the typical American city most people own cars and the temptation to drive is constant, mostly for lack of meaningful destinations within walking distance. People are not going to walk city streets and pathways unless four criteria are simultaneously met, according to urban designer Jeff Speck, a proponent of the walkable streets movement. If you want to make the walk as good or better than a drive, the walk must:

1. Lead somewhere meaningful or desirable

2. Be safe and feel safe

3. Be comfortable

4. Be interesting

Think in terms of lots of small streets, all comfortable to walk on, and all leading to the things we need and want to do, such as work, recreation, shopping, dining, education and mass transit stations that allow us to scale greater distances.

Speck dubs it “the general theory of walkability.” It requires creating environmental intimacy. That cannot be accomplished with long, wide thoroughfares that leave pedestrians feeling exposed and marginalized. Long, naked streets look and feel as though they are heading to oblivion.

Real estate investors and developers have long been fond of value-add investing; taking an underperforming project and making changes that boost its fortunes. Cities have caught on to the value-add concept, too.

One case in point is Oklahoma City, where the mayor hired Speck after Prevention magazine flagged it the worst city for pedestrians in the entire country. The ensuing “walkability study” found the city’s streets had far more capacity (10,000 cars per day) than the number they were actually handling (3,000 to 7,000). Speck redesigned every avenue in the 50-block downtown area by adding medians, trees, doubling the amount of on-street parking, and adding a network of bike paths. Adding more street-side parking makes retailers happy and adds a layer of protection for sidewalks and the pedestrians who use them, according to Speck.

He also talks of the bicycling “revolution” under way in some American cities. Though the build-it-and-they-will-come mentality is averse to Speck’s thinking generally, it actually works for cycling. Bicycle population is a function of bicycle infrastructure, he says, pointing to how New York City vastly increased the number of cyclists by painting bike lanes a bright green, making them vivid to drivers and easy for cyclists to track. Even automotive cities such as Long Beach, Calif., have seen significant upticks in cyclist volume when bicycle infrastructure was put in place, improved or expanded.

Sensible neighborhood redevelopment, improved mass transit, increased pedestrian mobility, and bicycle infrastructure are all part of the walkability formulation.

Score one for the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

Mike Consol ( is editor of Real Assets Adviser.

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