Building Streets for Walkers

Those who know me know how passionate I am about building communities, public transportation around and between them, and the like. But great places to go to, and places to love begin with being a place you’ll walk in.

Mostly in the past fifty or so years we’ve thought of those as places you drive to, and then walk around. From amusement parks (what people love about Disney’s theme parks is that there are no cars once you’re inside) to places like Harbourfront (Toronto) or Granville Island (Vancouver), two urban bits of “let’s build walkable places”, we’ve seen walking as a destination.

Then, too, some of the earliest “New Urbanist” demonstrations of note were wholly new communities, as though what already existed would always be second-rate to what you could do with a greenfield.

Today I shall try and dissect what this might mean if we were to start and apply this, not in “new towns” or “new neighbourhoods”, but in the fabric that already exists on the ground.

A sustainable community begins life by being one that is built around the prospects for health for its residents. This begins, as far as I’m concerned, by removing the emphasis on the automobile. Walking is the foundation of good health.

10,000 steps/day is a maintenance level required, generally, to avoid many of the degenerative diseases, such as Type II Diabetes, Heart Disease, High “bad” Cholesterol, etc. Such is quite within reach when we remember that movement around the office or school, walking to and from lunch, etc. is part of this base.

Steps add up, however, when one walks to/from transit, or around one’s neighbourhood.

A standard Manhattan city block, for instance, represents roughly 180 steps (with a step based on “from one foot, to the other foot, back to the first foot (L-R-L or R-L-R)” at around 1.5 m/5 ft each) in the long direction, and 52 steps in the shorter direction (blocks traditionally are rectangles).

For a person living four “long” blocks from effective transit service — less than 10 minutes between pickups in either direction, and with an average speed of 25 km/h or better between stops including time spent at the stops — and two “long” blocks to a place of work/schooling at the other end of a daily journey, this basic commute introduces over 2,150 steps/day.

Add another 2,000-3,000/day in movement around the office and/or to/from lunch.

In other words, neighbourhood amenities need only create rational behaviour leading to another 5,000-6,000 steps to be designed for healthy living. Making sure a neighbourhood has most services (even if they are replicated every few blocks) not only creates employment for local people, it makes the streets a place to be on foot.

Manhattan has this. The deli, baker, drug store, cleaners, bank, barber, salon, etc. framework repeats every few blocks in a wholly organic fashion. Other shops, providing specialty needs, become “reasons to come here” by transit. Almost everyone picks up and delivers.

But much flatter and smaller places do this, too. The same pattern exists throughout The Hague in The Netherlands — a little area of stores every few blocks anchoring a neighbourhood of single-family homes.

(We have tended to zone these out of the centre of the neighbourhood and stick them on the arterial connecting roads, by thinking of the car first, rather than foot traffic.)

I said “rational”. What does this mean?

Consider the length of time it takes to get in a car, move it from its parking space, move it to the destination, find and secure parking at that end: a distance of 400 m, somewhere between three and four blocks, represents 12±2 minutes on foot. Oddly enough, this also represents a typical time of 12±2 minutes behind the wheel, in a neighbourhood with a “high street” for shopping. Beyond this time frame, the car begins to be “competitive” with the foot traveller, at least on paper.

I picked these as this represents a pair of journeys I know well, from living in Vancouver: one block off Dunbar St. on W. 27th Ave., to a parking lot stretching back one “short” block at Dunbar St. and W. 30th Ave., also known as “from (then) home to Stong’s Market”. At my stride, this was typically only 10 minutes, including “red light” delays to cross Dunbar St., so 12±2 minutes is certainly favourable to people less mobile than a mid-fifties me. At the same time, traffic levels on the side streets made the delays in coming out of an on-street parking space roughly equivalent to having left a laneway garage.

That 400 m each way represents another 560±30 steps, depending on my efficiency in the store.

I mentioned The Hague, earlier, and we lived there, too, with its walkable neighbourhood pattern. These neighbourhoods were built on the principles outlined here.

90% of all errands could be handled with a trip to no more than two of these strips. As this pattern was repeated regularly, a round trip of 800-1,000 m was sufficient to meet — on foot — almost all needs.

Manhattan is laid out similarly. By regular personal experience, I can also say that in The Hague, Manhattan and in Vancouver, making two or three such trips a day (to handle all packages by hand while not overloading myself as a walker) fit comfortably within the same “time window” used for these errands while living in suburbs (Trumbull, CT and Coquitlam, BC), where using a car to handle the distances involved thanks to the zoning policies barring the mixing of retail and residences was required.

Living now in Toronto, I live in a similar pattern: 700 m to the subway on foot, 350 m from the subway to the office, with a “90% of needs” shopping district accessible in an 1,000 m trip from a different subway station to home. In other words, in terms of paces and timing (even the shopping return after work fits into 15 mins.) I effectively live in a walking-scale community.

Oh, yes, let’s also mention better blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetic controls and maintaining my weight 22 lb. (10 kg.) under what it used to be. Without effort.

Neighbourhoods can be constructed around these principles, using the existing street grid and fabric, simply by allowing mixed-use zoning.

The construction of 3-4 storey blocks of flats with street-level retail along transit corridors provided needed density to promote frequent service; the retail, in turn, turns at least three long blocks on each side of the transit/retail street into “walking zone” residences. Ensuring the side streets are kept narrow helps hold down auto speeds, making the neighbourhood favourable to walking.

On-street (not store lots!: storefronts should be built out to the sidewalks) parking insulates walkers from the cars on the street. (Merchants detest this at first, until they discover that their neighbours are their customers, and still coming: this is the Manhattan experience, where most stores also pickup if appropriate, and generally deliver to make walking and shopping a pleasant experience.)

What about bicycles, you might say? Keep them on the road. That means bicycle lanes. Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge.

Some cities (e.g. Vancouver) handle this by using parallel streets: with the urban pattern on 4th Ave. in Kitsilano, 3rd and 5th Aves. are bicycle routes, sharing the road with residents, and with blockages periodically to deter “straight through” automobile use (bicycles have cutouts to allow them to proceed). The same pattern is used on 8th and 10th Aves. alongside Broadway (9th). Sidewalks are for pedestrians, especially ones loaded with bags. Install, by all means, bicycle locking loops at the sidewalk’s edge. Both 4th and Broadway, in turn, are major transit streets, with multiple routes operating down them. Increasingly, older one and two storey buildings are being replaced by four and five storey “retail at ground, condos above” structures to take advantage of the walkability and the transit services (which are electrified, frequent, and quiet).

Service vehicles and delivery vans should be relegated to the service lanes, or to the early morning hours if store front loading zones are to be in use.

Civic engineering for three generations now has been focused on moving automobiles quickly. But quick-moving traffic inhibits walking. Two-way streets (which make the existing grid of streets far more useful by increasing options), narrowing the traffic lanes (through bus-reserved lanes, LRT lanes, bicycle lanes, on-street parking, etc.), widening sidewalks to encourage outdoor tables at cafés and restaurants, plus benches to just sit in the sun, planting shade trees and making the street a “cool haven” in summer (and an outdoor room) are all good techniques to use.

Isn’t that why we love places like Paris and aren’t quite so fond of where we live now? Parisians, of course, own cars and use them — to go out of town. But generally they’re parked during the day, because their city fabric gets them to work, to shop, to events and to dine without needing one. You see that in Manhattan as well. Paris does it without skyscrapers, which says to me that tall buildings aren’t the issue, what’s at ground level is.

Such simple techniques take us a long way to a more sustainable neighbourhood and to healthier people, at low cost.

As you’ve seen, we haven’t yet reached (in this thought experiment) a 10,000 pace/day society. One would hope such a rich set of neighbourhoods would provide further reasons to walk: trips to small theatres, restaurants and the like, trips to the library or community centre, trips to walk the dog in the park. (This, too, is the experience of Manhattan, parts of Toronto and Vancouver, The Hague and other European centres.)

It is generally not necessary or desirable to bar cars: simply making it more sensible to not use the car is enough.

The important three points, though are:

  • Stop engineering streets for speedy auto traffic, and instead engineer them for walkers, bicycles and transit, with the residual space “left” for cars and trucks.

    Walkable streets are treed (for shade), have room for outdoor tables (for the pleasure of being there), interesting shops (a function of the density of stores), reasons to go to the neighbourhood (the special amenities that require “larger catchment areas” to make them viable) and have enough people living in them to make transit facilities financially viable on an operating basis.

  • Mixed-use zoning is essential: the more opportunities to walk (or cycle a short distance) to work, to shop, etc. the better.

    This implies the need to insert such facilities, as current single-use zoning systems create long “dead zones” where cars are essential (consider any typical suburb of your choice).

  • While focal points (e.g. “T”-junctions) are pleasing places to go to (and important sites for key buildings) and slow traffic, they are not currently “engineered in”.

    These must be created out of the existing fabric. Keep traffic two-way, but limit the number of lanes (e.g. today’s “six lane” road [four for traffic, two of parking] becomes a pair of parking lanes, a pair of bicycle/transit lanes and a pair of lanes for cars and trucks).

Rather than dream of carbon taxes, tax credits, incentives and regulations, or of massive urban re-engineering schemes, this is a model we know works, know how to move to, and can do inexpensively.

Indeed, it’s how we used to build.

What, pray tell, is holding us back?

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