Walkable Cities
By David F. Parker

I recently attended a lecture by city planner Jeff Speck, the author of Walkable Cities. He cited a wide variety of statistics on health, economics and recreation supporting the rationale of directing urban and suburban planning toward more walkable and bicycle-friendly cities. This experience, and the lively discussion that followed, reinforced the experiences I wrote about in my monthly blogs over the past eighteen months about visiting the appealing cities of Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia; and later experiencing the much older cities of eastern Europe along the Danube River. All of these cities had transformed large sections of their ground level circulation areas into pedestrian enclaves which cater to people enjoying a slower pace of life than those dependent upon automobile transportation. Outdoor cafes, fresh markets, arts and crafts centers and even musical and dance performers are interspersed with retail shops, office buildings and delightful small parks that attract residents from throughout the encompassing city, as well as visitors from afar, eager to experience the charm of no-car zones.

Some of these walkable cities, such as Portland, rely upon public mass transit to convey people in from peripheral parking lots, whereas others, such as we witnessed in central Belgrade, Serbia, have erected large parking structures along the edge of pedestrian areas.. Thus, the feasibility of center-city pedestrian areas is clearly linked to public transit—rapid rail lines as well as electric street cars and rubber-tired buses. In the False Creek area of Vancouver, small ferry boats or water taxis also are employed to transport pedestrians and cyclists across the tidal basin. Assuming modest residential densities within comfortable walking range, walkable cities must rely upon public transit powered by energy-using vehicles, which constitute a major capital and operating expenditure by the local or regional government.

Clearly, the urban residential population, living in relatively dense apartment buildings, plays a major role in supporting the commercial enterprises that appear to be thriving in these pedestrian-only central cities—residents who tend to be adult couples and singles rather than families with children. Although there does not appear to be any correlation between falling birth rates in all developing countries and the proliferation of pedestrian zones, nationwide surveys in the United States prove that families prefer the larger private open spaces of suburban locations rather than central cities. Such private spaces have become increasingly expensive as road and utility costs drive up the price of suburban new homes, causing a variety of innovations in shared open space as a trade-out for smaller private space.

Our reliance upon infrastructure to transport residents and visitors throughout urban settlements continues. However, the dominant role of infrastructure design in planning cities is not sacred.
Advances in technology for self-propelled vehicles have made it feasible to economically and safely employ rubber-tired transit vehicles of small size on slow routes guided by electronic beams. In essence, this technology permits relatively low-density housing patterns to be linked to a variety of activity centers at theoretically feasible cost levels. We might have our cake and eat it too if such routes became the first priority in planning new communities. Water, sewer and cable as well as narrow bikeways, could be accommodated in the same rights of way. The much larger land use required for streets can be relegated to less direct second priority routes. By this means, our urban and suburban areas can both benefit from a linked system of pedestrian and bicycle areas. Future walkable cities appear feasible if we start planning with the right first priority.

If you would like to explore further details on this or other stories, please contact David F. Parker at (904) 992-9888, or david@parkerassociates.com.