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In Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, British everyman Arthur Dent first sees alien visitor Ford Prefect standing, inexplicably, in the middle of a busy street with his hand outstretched toward an onrushing VW Beetle. After Arthur pushes the fellow out of harm’s way, he learns Ford was trying to befriend the car. The newcomer had decided these ubiquitous metal creatures must be our planet’s dominant life form.
Well, in a sense he was right. Our cars are very much a part of us now. But while we now enjoy a level of mobility unprecedented in human history, our growing dependence upon our cars has created some challenging problems. Seniors become trapped in their homes as their ability to drive diminishes. Children can’t get anywhere by themselves, and their parents are stressed to the limit with the complicated job of chauffeuring them everywhere. Traffic congestion spoils once-peaceful rural roadways, renders major arterials hopelessly inefficient, and spews noxious gas into our air.
We can’t afford the money or land area to keep expanding our roadways. And, given all the negative consequences of more traffic, many communities are recognizing that we must create alternatives to driving in order to sustain — or restore — our quality of life. But efforts to invigorate alternatives like public transit often fail because so many of the places we try to serve are so far apart, and difficult to navigate without a car.
One key part of any approach to reducing people’s need to drive lies in pulling our far-flung destinations closer together and designing safe ways to access them on foot. In other words, we need to create walkable communities.
What is a Walkable Community?
When asked to picture a walkable community, many folks remember a neighborhood, town square, or city block where people of all ages enjoyed being outside. It featured streets along which people could comfortably walk and talk, buildings they could easily see and enter on foot, and a variety of folks out and about.
Before the advent of the automobile, when towns were built along rail lines and rivers, it would have been unthinkable to lay out a place that couldn’t be navigated on foot. Since the mid-20th century, however, it’s been unthinkable to develop a place where you can’t drive. In order to make room for bigger roads and parking lots, we often sacrifice the elements that make a community walkable. We have to think about design in a whole new way if we want to accommodate pedestrians as well as drivers.
The following list from the 1994 “Walk Boston” plan is a good summary of are the basic elements planners need to consider in order to shape walkable places:
- Coherence. A clear, understandable and organized sidewalk, street and land-use system consistent with the scale and function of the surrounding urban context;
- Continuity. A pattern of design and usage that unifies the pedestrian system;
- Equilibrium. A balance among transportation modes that encourages pedestrians;
- Safety. Pedestrian protection from automobiles and bicycles. Adequate time to cross intersections. Physical separation from fast-moving cars;
- Comfort. Secure and negotiable paving materials for sidewalks and crosswalks. Unobstructed passage on the sidewalk and at corners;
- Sociability. A sense of hospitality and suitability for individual and community interactions;
- Accessibility. The opportunity for all individuals to use the pedestrian environment fully;
- Efficiency. Simplicity, cost-effectiveness, and minimum pedestrian delay in design and function; and
- Attractiveness. Clean, efficient and well-maintained surroundings, with adjacent storefronts and activities that provide sidewalk interest.
Effective pedestrian plans are built (literally and figuratively) from the ground up by engaging community residents in simple, straightforward activities that help them envision these fundamental elements.
… article continues with examination of the benefits of walkable communities, and ideas on how to promote more walkable cities and towns.
Hannah Twaddell is President and founder of Twaddell Associates, LLC, a consulting practice specializing in community planning, public engagement, facilitation, and education. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, the firm provides planning, facilitation, and educational services to communities, government agencies, and private organizations across the U.S.
Before setting up Twaddell Associates, Hannah was a Senior Transportation Planner with Renaissance Planning Group, where she has worked on transportation planning and public involvement projects in several states. Prior to that, she served as Assistant Director of the Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission (in Charlottesville) and as chief staff to the Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization.