Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Review: Walkable City

I recently picked up Jeff Speck's new book, Walkable City: How downtown can save America, one step at a time. I highly recommend it. Jeff is a Massachusetts native who has worked as an architect, city planner and designer all over the country. The purpose of the book is best explained by this quote from the prologue:
This discussion is necessary because, since midcentury, whether intentionally or by accident, most American cities have effectively become no-walking zones. In the absence of any larger vision or mandate, city engineers--worshiping the twin gods of Smooth Traffic and Ample Parking--have turned our downtowns into places that are easy to get to but not worth arriving at.
I would characterize the book as a collection of well-footnoted facts assembled into a coherent narrative with compelling, clear prose. It was enjoyable and quick to read. You will be better informed afterwards. He lays out the case for walkability, and then follows it with advice for achieving walkability in your city. Being familiar with the topics, I knew about most of the facts presented, but did learn a bunch as well, including (but not limited to):

  • Portland, Oregon residents drive 20% less and save an estimated $2.6 billion because of that, which finds its way into the local economy instead of being pumped abroad.
  • Massachusetts residents with the lowest body mass index averages were located in Boston and the inner ring suburbs, while the highest averages were found outside the I-495 belt.
  • Toronto has the most linear feet of successful retail-fronted sidewalks; Sweden has the highest share of urban trips going to walking instead of driving; and sidewalk cafés stay open all year round in Denmark.
  • "Landscape urbanism" is actually a return of the dreaded "tower-in-the-park" style city planning that caused so much misery in the mid-20th century.
The book functions as a very accessible source of quick facts and pithy quotes for cross-referencing -- you will want to highlight many interesting passages for later. I think my favorite quote may be this one:
Since it is the only real constraint to driving, congestion is the one place where people are made to feel the pinch in their automotive lives. Were it not for congestion, we would drive enough additional miles to make congestion. So the traffic study has become the default act of planning, and more than a few large companies can thank traffic studies for the lion's share of their income. They don't want you to read the next few paragraphs. 
Traffic studies are bullshit.
Indeed. I've written about the problems with traffic studies several times. Jeff goes on to enumerate three main reasons. The first one is what we in the computer science business would call "GIGO": Garbage In, Garbage Out. The models are only as good as their inputs, and their design, for that matter. They can easily be tweaked to suit whatever agenda the modeler has in mind. For example, most cities assume 1% to 2% "background traffic growth" (here in Boston it's usually 0.5%) even when traffic levels are falling. The second objection is the old "conflict of interest" story: the firms which produce traffic studies are often the firms which get hired to implement the "solution." Hence they are motivated to call for more spending which will be routed into their own coffers. And finally, almost never do traffic studies consider the phenomenon of "induced demand", even after it has been observed and studied for over fifty years.

I would also add another problem with traffic studies: they focus on "vehicles throughput per hour" or "vehicle delay" instead of considering the flow of actual people. So the bias against buses or carpools continues. Although, nowadays traffic studies around here do tend to include some token mention of "pedestrian delay", "bicycle throughput" or "transit access" it's usually a short bit and tucked away.

I agree with much of what he writes, and he also relies heavily on the great work of others, such as Donald Shoup and Hans Mondermann. But I have to take issue with a small selection of ideas in the book; nothing that affects the larger point, but a few things that should be pointed out.

  • Jeff: Urbanity [in public transport] means locating all significant stops in the heart of the action, not a block away. Me: Yes and no. You definitely want to keep it convenient, but there's plenty of examples of successful transit which requires walking a block or two "from the action." Practically all subway stations (except for the shallowest cut and cover) require some amount of walking around to access. People will walk further to higher quality transit.
  • Jeff: Frequency is the thing that most transit services get wrong. [...] so ten-minute headways are the standard for any line that hopes to attract a crowd. If you can't fill a bus at that rate, then get a van. Me: He's absolutely right about the importance of frequency. But "getting a van" is not a solution to the high cost of frequency. First of all, the primary operating cost is paying a driver; and there's no discount for "van driver" over "bus driver." Second, if you are a public transit agency, then you have a fleet of hundreds of buses. You are probably not interested in adding yet another model of vehicle that needs its own maintenance manuals and technician training. You are definitely not interested in extra deadhead trips back to the garage because you need to switch out a van with a bus. In fact, it probably will end up costing you more money to equip a route with vans than with the buses you were already using.
  • Jeff: Few sidewalks without parking entice walking, yet cities routinely eliminate it in the name of traffic flow, beautification, and, more recently, security. Me: I was scratching my head over this one for a while, since there's plenty of examples of sidewalks without parking that are great. But I would say that they are mostly on small streets where people freely share the roadway (such as in the North End), or the sidewalks are plenty wide, or there is some other circumstance protecting walkers from traffic. I agree that if the street is too wide and there is fast-moving traffic, then a line of parked cars is better than a travel lane. But that's a workaround to deal with a bad situation. Unfortunately, the idea of putting street parking everywhere leads designers to create totally new streets that are way too wide in order to accommodate parking on one or both sides. Even when those streets could have had the opportunity to be smaller, calmer "shared streets," an idea which Jeff also promotes.
Of course, he gets right back on my good side: "Another reliable bellwether [of walkability] is the visible absence of push-button traffic signals. [...] Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrian should never have to ask for a light." Although, Boston is the exception; we have walkability despite the omnipresence of push-button signals -- probably because everyone ignores them anyway.

The book is pitched at smaller cities, places trying to pick up population and compete with Boston, New York, San Francisco, etc. But I would say there's plenty Boston could still learn from it, and I'm sure folks would agree about some of the other "star" cities as well. If more city planners read this book, great. But it's also written for a wide audience, so just about anyone with any interest in cities, or walkable towns, will find this book enjoyable and enlightening. And that really could be anyone; we are all affected by the fate of the cities in our economy. And if city planning (and traffic engineering) of the last century has shown us anything, it's that the people with the most credentials can sometimes have the least sense. We need ordinary people to become informed and involved.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this great review – I enjoyed the book also and agree your assessment on all points. Narrow streets and on-street parking were mentioned in the same breath back in Suburban Nation, in a passage that I would wager was also written by Speck, who co-authored the book (p. 71):

    "In addition to narrow streets, another factor that contributes mightily to pedestrian perceptions of safety is on-street parallel parking. Parked cars create a highly effective steel barrier between the street and the sidewalk, so that walkers feel protected from moving traffic. They also slow traffic, because drivers perceive potential conflict with cars pulling in and out [I think Donald Shoup would say because they are frequently cruising for parking]. Additionally, parallel parking supports pedestrian life by delivering people to the sidewalk. Since drivers are seldom able to park directly in front of their destination, they often walk past ships or houses other than the one they are visiting."

    Speck (assuming he wrote this) doesn't explicitly say it, but the logical implication in Suburban Nation is that parallel parking is most appropriate in commercial areas of attached shops and storefronts on wide streets (note that the griping about its removal in both books is exclusively addressed to "main street" areas), rather than in residential areas. The passage also grasps that the street doesn't necessarily have more pedestrians because the parked cars make it more pleasant, it has more pedestrians because, in most American towns and cities, the majority of pedestrians are arriving in cars. These important distinctions get muddled a bit in Walkable City, which is surprising, because it is otherwise far more sophisticated in its treatment of parking. As you said, this contributes to a continuing misinterpretation in which on-street parking is advocated on almost all urban streets.

    It's especially odd here because while Speck asks "Have you ever tried sidewalk dining on a sidewalk without curbside parking?", only five pages earlier he mentions Espanola Way, a project he worked on personally, and which looks like this: He also states that "what makes a sidewalk safe is not its width" and goes are far as to call sidewalk widening "largely irrelevant" (!) but a sidewalk obviously does need at least some width to accommodate a dining area in the first place.

    Since shared space does get a fairly prominent and very positive mention in the book, I feel like Speck's rehashing of these "old" New Urbanist tenets is a bit out of place, and in the absence of clarification about how they apply creates some seemingly clashing and/or incompatible design objectives.


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