Urban planner Jeff Speck offers some practical guidelines in his book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time”. The book’s basic premise is that American cities, in general, are poorly designed urban spaces. Downtowns are built for cars instead of people. Some cities like Dallas and Houston have more parking lot space than buildings.
Speck’s guidelines are provided to improve urban walkability. The guidelines fall within the following 10 categories:
Step 1: Put Cars in Their Place - understanding traffic design decisions and how they may be modified to improve pedestrian access.
Step 2: Mix the Uses - ways of better sharing road space for users besides cars.
Step 3: Get the Parking Right - correcting imbalances in parking supply and demand due to current policies.
Step 4: Let Transit Work - with increased density, this leads to better transit function and ability to walk instead of driving everywhere.
Step 5: Protect the Pedestrian - development of spaces where people are comfortable and safe walking.
Step 6: Welcome Bikes.
Step 7: Shape the Spaces - with design of urban “outdoor rooms”.
Step 8: Plant Trees.
Step 9: Make Friendly and Unique Faces - providing urban facades and shapes that are interesting instead of forbidding blank walls or worse.
Step 10: Pick Your Winners - by not trying to fix every street, but by marshalling resources for the best candidates for upgrades.
Before getting to the details, Speck shares some thoughts about why walkability is good. His ideas are along the lines of “New Urbanism”, which prescribes urban spaces that are more densely developed. New urbanism places, which are actually old urbanism places, result in more appealing cities that have mixed uses, less highways, and outdoor spaces designed for people instead of cars. Because they are less sprawled, they require fewer resources per person. Speck’s ideal US metropolis based on this reasoning is New York City, and in particular, Manhattan.
Most of the book’s recommendations make sense. Since American cities are building the opposite of what is suggested, you wonder how American urban design became so poor, so quickly. For Speck and other new urbanists, it’s not just about bad design. Sprawling American cities lead to bad health, squandering of resources, and hyperbolically, even the end of civilization.
Grouchy fellow new urbanist, James Kunstler, writes:
“Eighty percent of everything built in America has been built in the last fifty years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy, and spiritually degrading- the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the ‘gourmet mansard’ junk-food joints, the Orwellian office ‘parks’ featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call ‘growth.” (from “The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape”).
"Walkable City" is an excellent read, with a lot of valuable information for engineers as well as planners. Unfortunately, there is a large elephant in the room that Speck either does not see or does not feel inclined to comment on. This failing significantly detracts from the book's overall success. The reason Americans have embraced sprawl is related to the idea of transportation at will. The automobile and the lure of the open road represent absolute freedom of mobility, or at least the impression of it. No society in human history has achieved anything close to this level of personal transportatoin freedom. It is difficult to write a book about how cars are evil when most readers believe that, overall, cars are good.
The day I finished reading “Walkable City”, we decided to go to the beach. Thanks to our working car (one of two family vehicles!), we were able to drive from our suburban home, down a few freeways, to a large, reasonably priced parking lot near a state beach reservation. Easy access there, easy access back, and thanks to our car, we were able to later drive to a vineyard, a restaurant, and a creamery as well. This leisure day was made possible thanks to our access to transportation-at-will. Such transportation is not provided by mass transit, no matter how frequent or good the service.
The freedom of transportation-at-will does not just enable a day at the beach. It enables more access to employment in different areas, better access to hospitals and health care, more convenient shopping, in fact better and more fluid transportation to everything.
But when I examine our beach day in more detail, I realized that the open road was not completely open. There were some compromises. We selected an out-of-the way beach for easy access. We could have gone to the Cape, or tried to. But no one goes to the Cape on a summer weekend for the day without suffering through 3 + hour traffic jams. In fact, to illustrate the point, the Cape traffic jam began just as we exited one of the freeways. So, two cars in every garage and transportation-at-will may be the American dream. But it is an imperfect dream requiring many compromises.
To make the book more widely palatable, useful and accessible to non-planners, Speck should have addressed the issue of transportation-at-will head on instead of mostly ignoring it. Implementation of personal vehicular transportation in the US has been deeply flawed. Trashed cities and endless sprawl are not acceptable by-products of freeway construction run amuck. But Speck, a snarky writer, instead dumps on traffic engineers who are largely talented professionals but are treated at times as foolish buffoons (to be fair, Speck often qualifies these sections with statements beginning with, "to be fair"). In one sub chapter, entitled “Kill the Traffic Engineers First”, Speck describes how engineers ignorantly pursue policies that enable all of the urban planning ills. Actually, traffic engineers are following policies that are intended to enable the cherished concept of transportation-at-will and the American dream of the open road. What needs to be done is not to kill the traffic engineers but to reexamine the policies and make necessary compromises.