Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step At A Time – Jeff Speck

walkable-city-jeff-specHere are my notes on the book “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step At A Time” by Jeff Speck.

On the surface this book is about urban planning, but really, it’s about marketing the downtown area of the city in which you live.

Don’t let the word “America” put you off. These principals apply to every city in the world.

So how do you make inner-cities more desirable for people? How do you encourage shoppers, visitors, tourists, residents, cyclists?

How do you make pedestrians feel welcome and safe?

You make it walkable.

I love a book that challenges the way you think and the assumptions you’ve built up over time.

This is one of those books.

First, let’s take a look at Jeff Specks’ 10 steps and then I’ll tell you how he changed my ideas.

The Ten Steps of Walkability

The Useful Walk

Step 1: Put Cars in Their Place.

  • The automobile is a servant that has become a master. for sixty years, it has been the single dominant factor in the shaping of our cities.
  • Relegating the car to its proper role is essential to reclaiming our cities for pedestrians, and doing so requires a fuller understanding of how the car and its minions have unnecessarily distorted the ways that design decisions are made in American communities.

Step 2: Mix the Uses.

  • For people to choose to walk, the walk must serve some purpose.
  • In planning terms, that goal is achieved through mixed use, or, more accurately, placing the proper balance of the greatest number of uses all within walking distance of each other.
  • While there are exceptions, most downtowns have an imbalance of uses that can be overcome only through a concerted effort to increase housing supply.

Step 3: Get Parking Right.

  • As Andres Duany puts it, “parking is destiny.”
  • It is the not-so-hidden force determining the life or death of many a downtown.
  • Parking requirements and pricing determine the disposition of more urban land nationwide than any other factor, yet, until recently, there was not even any theory on how to use parking to a city’s benefit.
  • That theory now exists, and is just beginning to effect policy nationwide.

Step 4: Let Transit Work.

  • Walkable neighborhoods can thrive in the absence of transit, but walkable cities rely on it utterly.
  • Communities that hope to become the latter must make transit-planning decisions based upon a number of factors that are routinely neglected.
  • These include the often surprising public support for transit investment, the role of transit in the creation of real-estate value, and the importance of design in the success or failure of transit systems.

The Safe Walk

Step 5: Protect the Pedestrian.

  • This is perhaps the most straightforward of the ten steps, but it also has the most moving parts, including block size, lane width, parking provision, turning motions, curb cuts, direction of flow, signalization, roadway geometry, and a number of other factors that all determine a car’s speed and a pedestrian’s likelihood of getting hit.
  • Most streets in most American cities get at least half of these things wrong.

Step 6: Welcome Bikes.

  • Walkable cities are also bikeable cities, because bicycles thrive in environments that support pedestrians, and also because bikeability makes driving less necessary.
  • More and more American cities are making big investments in bicycling, with impressive results.

The Comfortable Walk

Step 7: Shape the Spaces.

  • Perhaps the most counterintuitive discussion in planning, this may be the step that is most often gotten wrong. People enjoy open spaces, long views, and the great outdoors.
  • But people also enjoy, and need, a sense of enclosure to feel comfortable as pedestrians. for this reason, too much green or grey—parks or parking—can cause a would-be walker to stay home.
  • Public spaces are only as good as their edges.

Step 8: Plant Trees.

  • Like transit, most cities know that trees are good, but few are willing to pay properly for them.
  • This Step attempts to communicate the full value of trees and justify the greater investment that they deserve in almost all American cities.

The Interesting Walk 

Step 9: Make Friendly and Unique Faces.

  • If recent evidence is to be believed, lively inviting streetscapes have three main enemies: parking lots, drug stores, and star architects.
  • All three seem to favor blank walls, repetition, and a disregard for the need of pedestrians to be entertained.
  • City design codes, typically focused on use, bulk, and parking, have only begun to concern themselves with creating active facades that invite walking.

Step 10: Pick your Winners.

  • With the possible exception of Venice, even the most walkable cities are not universally walkable: there are only so many interesting street edges to go around.
  • As a result, however well designed the streets, certain among them will remain principally automotive.
  • This is as it should be, but cities must make a conscious choice about the size and location of their walkable cores, to avoid squandering walkability resources in areas that will never invite pedestrians.
  • This task may be the most physically simple and politically complex challenge in planning.

7 Ways In Which This Book Changed My Thinking

#1: I thought congestion was a bad thing. I was wrong.

For 3 reasons:

  1. The obvious reaction to congestion is wider roads and more lanes, right? Well, it turns out that works for about 6 months and then the increase in traffic brings the congestion straight back!
  2. Congestion slows down traffic which is safer for pedestrians/cyclists
  3. Congestion makes public transport more attractive

#2: I thought downtown was an unnatural place to live. I was wrong.

For 1 reason:

  1. A downtown of just offices and restaurants is boring and unbalanced. Include residents and all the services they need nearby and you have yourself a much more interesting environment. Spec calls this “mixed use”

#3: I thought cycle ways on every street was a good idea. I was wrong.

For 1 reason:

  1. Dedicated cycle lanes everywhere speed up car traffic and lower drivers mindfulness of cyclists. They rely on the strip of white paint rather than watch individual cyclists

#4: I thought one-way streets were a good idea. I was wrong.

For 3 reasons:

  1. They speed up traffic (which is bad for pedestrians)
  2. They are confusing (and annoying) to navigate for drivers/cyclists
  3. They encourage jay-walking (dangerous on a higher speed road)

#5: I thought longer term kerb side parking was a good idea. I was wrong.

For 1 reason:

  1. The sweet spot for occupation is apparently 85% so the right price for parking is whatever gets you that percentage of usage. Short term parking creates turnover which is much better for shop revenue.  1 hour is about right.

#6: I thought public transport is always inconvenient, expensive and slow. I was wrong.

For 1 reason:

  1. If there was a bus stop within 10m of your driveway that ran every 15mins and cost $1 each way and went directly to where you want to be, would you use it? Of course you would. Councils can’t use current demand to determine the level of service, frequency, price. They just need to put it in place because it’s the right thing to do.

#7: I thought permanent, large, car-free zones was a good idea. I was wrong.

For 2 reasons:

  1. A better idea is smaller, temporary setups with removable elements seating/bollards/paint to test different areas
  2. Pedestrians actually like a sense of enclosure in a smaller space to feel comfortable

Marketing Lessons

From a marketing point of view this is a reminder of 2 basic marketing principles.

1. Who makes the buying decisions?

  • Often called a “target market”, in this case the buyer is the pedestrian
  • Drivers don’t consumer inner city products and services
  • Neither do cyclists
  • Pedestrians do

2. What comes first?

  • City planning is complex. So is your business. Lot’s of moving parts. Some inside your control, most not
  • The key then is to prioritise your action list in terms of your biggest bang for your buck
  • And then take action

Your Thoughts?

Have your say in the comments below.

2 thoughts on “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step At A Time – Jeff Speck

  1. Good stuff Sheldon. Would be fantastic if the rest of our Council could ‘get on this bus’ as well. Looking at your survey results, however, its pretty depressing that the general community view seems to be ‘forget the CBD, and provide more parking please’…. How do we change these attitudes? Recommend you checkout the website http://www.strongtowns.org/

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