"Walkable City" could save our downtowns and residential areas
Last week I read "City Cycling", a collection of review articles about research that has to do with bicycling: Safety and bicycling, effects of infrastructure on bicycling rates, bicyclist demographics, bike share and bicycling rates, and more.
This week I'm reading "Walkable City" by city planner Jeff Speck. While he acknowledges that "one size" doesn't necessarily fit all cities, he offers a 10-step plan to revitalize downtowns and neighborhoods--by making them walkable.
Successful strategies to improve the regional economy and attract residents also improve walkability. In fact, it works in reverse. Making a city more walkable improves the economy and attracts residents.
It's not that difficult or expensive to make an area walkable. A walkable neighborhood features walks that are useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.
Useful--There is a destination to walk to. Zoning ordinances can detract from the usefulness of a neighborhood. Mixed-use zones allow people to live near enough to the places of their errands: A hair salon, a grocery store, an ice cream shop.
Safe--You won't get hit by a car. Streets these days are designed to be "safe" even well above the speed limit. Safe for the motorist, that is! Traffic calming measures that work are narrow and curved streets. (Trees help.) A street that feels unsafe to cars is safer for both motorists and pedestrians.
Comfortable--Buildings and landscape have the right shape. Again, trees help, as do awnings, benches, and low walls.
Interesting--"Signs of humanity abound". I don't think Speck means cars. He recommends interesting storefronts and trees (notice a pattern?) instead of parking lots and the vast blank walls of box stores.
I can't help but think about Kirksville while I'm reading. Two examples in particular stand out.
Speck could be describing Kirksville when he describes how the proliferation of one-way streets killed many a downtown. One-way streets make traffic flow smoothly. But downtowns die when traffic flows too smoothly. For the past few decades planners and engineers have catered to smooth traffic flow. But traffic shouldn't flow smoothly through certain areas--such as areas where businesses need customers to stop and shop, and residential areas that need slow, safe traffic.
A "road diet" can improve walkability. A few years ago, Kirksville, with good smooth-traffic-flow intentions, widened Jefferson St and took out all the trees on the south side. A few months ago, Jefferson St got a "road diet". Four lanes became three lanes (including a center turn lane), and the leftover width became bike lanes. This design is both safer and more efficient for motorists, encourages bicycling, and is more walkable. It would be even better with trees and destinations!
Many of Speck's recommendations target motor vehicle traffic. Speck isn't a car-hater. He knows that "build it and they will come" is true, so that building more roads to alleviate congestions actually makes congestion worse. Building more parking lots to alleviate crowded parking makes more crowded parking. Counter intuitively, cities that have successfully alleviated congestion and crowded parking did so by removing roads and parking, often at the same time improving conditions for other transportation modalities (transit, walking, and biking).
Of course, a walkable city is probably a bikeable city. But Speck cautions against becoming specialists. Bicyclists' needs have been ignored for so long that some overcompensation is called for, but city planners should consider the needs of all the users. That sounds familiar--that's the goal of Complete Streets.
I'm kind of excited about this book because Kirksville's downtown is, like so many small towns', struggling. Maybe this is the key--make it walkable and bring back success!