One of the themes I hope to discuss in this blog is how to improve the pedestrian experience. Above all, we should design our neighborhoods so that they are conducive to walking and use of public transit, rather than increasing convenience for automobiles. Walking and public transit are flip sides of the same coin, and it often makes sense to address both issues once.
Of course, in the old days, this was a no-brainer. The Bay Area’s oldest neighborhoods (generally speaking, those neighborhoods in the urban core, and some of the suburban downtowns) were laid out before the automobile became a standard mode of travel, and those neighborhoods — with their attractive architecture and streetscape, narrow streets, and first floor businesses with interesting storefronts — represent what is perhaps the ideal pedestrian experience. Once upon a time, we built cities the right way, but when automobiles became a standard possession of every upstanding American family, city planners — especially in suburbs, where new neighborhoods were popping up — made the mistake of planning around cars, and in doing so, destroy any semblance of a quality pedestrian experience.
Nowadays, seeing the detrimental effect that planning around cars has had on travel patterns, city planners have returned to embracing walkable neighborhoods. There’s a great website called Walk Score, in which you can type in an address, and the website will count the number of businesses and pedestrian amenities in the neighborhood of that address. Results are reported in many categories: grocery stores, restaurants, bars, cafes, parks, schools, theaters, libraries, and so forth. Obviously, the more such amenities that exist very close to your home, the higher a “walk score” your neighborhood will be given.
However, the algorithm that calculates the walk score appears to have several notorious omissions and drawbacks. For instance, it does not seem to address these important questions:
- How transit-rich is the neighborhood? What transit modes are available (subway, streetcar, bus)? What is the frequency of those lines? Are those lines 24-hour, or are they limited to certain times of day?
- The speed limit for cars in the neighborhood.
- The width of the street: crossing 2 lanes of traffic is much less intimidating than crossing 6 lanes.
- The nature of the sidewalks: do they exist? Are they continuous, or are there driveways every few feet, potentially interrupting a pedestrian’s flow of walking?
- Are businesses located directly on the street, or are pedestrians forced to walk through potentially dangerous parking lots to reach the stores?
Of course, it is often reasonable to assume that the concentration of businesses in a neighborhood is positively correlated to the availability of close public transit, so counting the number of businesses is actually a pretty good tactic, particularly in urban centers. (On the other hand, a suburban shopping center will also have many businesses, but very likely a lousy pedestrian experience.) Despite the fact that the Walk Score algorithm does not seem to take these factors into account, I tested it on a variety of neighborhoods, and I generally agreed with its predictions. My own neighborhood — despite its one-way streets that sometimes encourage automobiles to speed — received a healthy 98 out of 100 points, which I would pretty much agree with.
What’s your Walk Score?