Review of Jeff Speck’s Walkable City

Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time

Architect and urban planner Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City: How Downtown can Save America, One Step at a Time [New York, November 2012], is, at its core, a how-to manual for mayors. But it also goes further than that and offers Speck’s theories on why now, more than ever before it is necessary to make certain smart decisions that will help America survive in smaller spaces and with fewer private and industrial vehicles.

He says it’s always been common knowledge that walkability is a sign of a good place to live, but the path towards a walkable city has remained murky for many, as well as the benefits to other aspects of city life that can come of it – “walkability is both an end and a means.”

To me, the most obvious reason that everyone should ditch their cars and figure out the bus schedule is to stop burning gas. Speck begins to add up dollar amounts for the gas we buy from overseas, and notes that when we talk emissions, it’s important to understand that once you calculate all the tailpipe emissions in America, you should tack on 50% more for the carbon that’s emitted to build the cars and the infrastructure cars require. (Loc. 1396)

Speck also references a few studies which show that low-fuel and hybrid cars tend not to reduce emissions, since people tend to lose the guilt and drive more mileage in them. He laments the hero status we give things like CFLs and EnergyStar appliances, quoting architect Witold Rybczynski: “Rather than trying to change behavior to reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. ‘Keep doing what you’re doing,’ is the message, just add another solar panel, a wind turbine, a bamboo floor, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the suburbs is still a house in the suburbs, and if you have to drive to it – even in a Prius – it’s hardly green.”

Sketches of the Manhattan Bridge underpass

Sketches of the Manhattan Bridge underpass

Speck says that the basic principle is that “a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting.” Really simply, a useful walk means that you’re able to get somewhere, a safe walk is one where you don’t feel threatened, and a comfortable and interesting walk means that the architects and landscape architects have done their job properly, and the shape and aesthetics of the streetscape are welcoming. He further breaks down the four conditions into “Ten Steps to Walkability:” Put Cars in Their Place, Mix the Uses, Get the Parking Right, Let Transit Work, Protect the Pedestrian, Welcome Bikes, Shape the Spaces, Plant Trees, Make Friendly and Unique Faces, and Pick your Winners.

The first step to walkability (and the most difficult) is to “Put Cars in Their Place.” He cites numerous studies which show that wider streets promote driving, saying “Cities with higher congestion use less fuel per capita, while cities with the least congestion use the most fuel… Congestion saves fuel because people hate to waste their time being miserable.”

He says that traffic engineers design every street at a much higher design speed than what the actual speed limit will allow, with the assumption that a wider street is safer, but, as we discovered with the congestion issue, people drive differently on different streets, and most of the existing civil engineering standards in America involve widening roads, reducing obstacles, adding signage, and generally making it much easier for drivers to pretend Main Street is a drag strip. (Loc 1050.)

When we hear “Mix the Uses,” we think of a list of everything we want to do downtown: “eat, visit, heal, shop, work, drink, learn, worship, convene, recreate, celebrate, sleep” and Speck says that the one thing that there’s never enough of is housing. A downtown that doesn’t have enough housing to keep all of its other uses in business can’t be a walkable downtown. It’s also important to have different kinds of people living in all areas of a city – too much low income or expensive housing in one area means that the streets will only be active during certain times of day – mixing the demographics means that the street will be active at all times of the day, which better supports businesses and other community uses. (Loc 1380.)

Jacob Riis beach parking lot, empty. August 2013.

Jacob Riis beach parking lot, empty. August 2013.

Speck attributes much of the information in “Get the Parking Right,” to Donald Shoup, an engineer, economist, and urban planner who has made parking his life’s work. This third step to walkability deals with induced demand again – he says that “in 2010, the first nationwide count determined that there are half a billion empty parking spaces in America at any given time,” and most cities have laws which mandate huge parking requirements for new development. This is all stuff we’ve heard before – the environmental issues with heat, pollution, and runoff from parking lots has been belabored, but what struck me are the economic costs of parking.

Speck says a “cheap” parking space – an asphalt spot in the country costs about $4,000 to build, and an underground parking garage in the city can cost between $40,000 and $60,000 to build. These costs are distributed from developer to tenants, to the tenants customers, and “The cumulative subsidy was calculated a decade ago at between $127 billion and $374 billion per year, which puts it in the range of our national defense budget.” (Donald Shoup.) He suggests moving this cost into a gas tax, saying our current parking subsidy “reduces the price of automotive commuting by a remarkable 71 percent.” In San Francisco, it’s been estimated that the requirement to include a parking spot for every unit of affordable housing actually raises low-income rent by 20 percent. (Loc. 1683)

The chapter on transit, “Get the Transit Right,” is mostly a study of failed transit systems. Speck explains that the oldest transit systems work best because neighborhoods have developed in nodal patterns around transit stops, and are densest near those nodes, so transit tends to breed walkability. Conversely, when transit is added to an existing area, it will fail if there’s not a certain level of existing walkability in the area around the stops - the last one hundred yards is what kills a lot of new transit systems, since people who are used to driving cars have  no interest in taking the bus if it lets them off on the side of the road a hundred yards away from the shopping center.

An empty car on the B train, Manhattan.

An empty car on the B train, Manhattan.

In “Protect the pedestrian,” Speck begins, “Keep it complicated.” Many road features that are illegal in a lot of U.S. cities actually make for much safer streets. For example, five-way intersections and intersections where streets meet at weird angles force drivers to slow down and pay attention. Speck calls this risk homeostasis and one of my favorite quotes from the book is “It explains why … why the deadliest intersections in America are typically the ones you can navigate with one finger on the steering wheel and a cell phone at your ear.”

He points to Sweden’s switch from driving on the left side of the road to the right side as a prime example of risk homeostasis. In 1967 traffic fatalities “dropped from more than thirteen hundred to fewer than eleven hundred, a decline of 17 percent.” Everyone was terrified about the change – street signs were switched overnight, and everyone was still driving cars with the steering wheel on the wrong side, so they all drove more carefully than ever before.

A bike decorated with MetroCards, seen around Manhattan

A bike decorated with MetroCards, seen in Manhattan

Welcoming Bikes” is something we’ve been talking about in New York, between health, environmental issues, and the ability to beat congestion, the benefits of biking seem obvious, but Speck proves that adding bikes to a street makes it much more safe for pedestrians as well, by forcing drivers to be more cautious. “As bike lanes have been added along New York’s avenues, injuries to pedestrians have dropped by about a third.” There are also economic advantages – “In contrast to widened roads and other highway ‘improvements,’ new bikeways actually increase the value of nearby real estate.” (Loc 2606.)

After spending five years in architecture school, “Shape the Spaces” was old news. Essentially Speck wants cities to be seen as a figure-ground plan, instead of the traditional plan map – we should look at everything as a volume of space. Rome exemplifies this, where every block face is punctuated by colonnades and archways leading into courtyards, making the street feel like a volume to be explored, instead of a space between volumes.

Of course we should “Plant Trees,” but they are routinely removed from street edges because of the damage they might cause to a car that hops the curb. Speck says it goes back to the “keep it complicated” statement, and he references studies where the same street was found to have more car crashes on the section where street trees had been removed.

          Friendly and Unique Faces” here doesn’t refer to neighbors smiling at neighbors, but architects building buildings that people want to walk by. You see this easily walking down a major avenue in midtown Manhattan – blocks taken up by a single massive building with a single entrance seem to take forever to walk past, whereas blocks with many small shops with unique window displays make it feel good to be a pedestrian.

The last step to walkability is probably the first step in the planning process, which is to “Pick your Winners.” Speck stresses throughout the book that not all cities can be walkable; some were built for cars and will never be navigable without them. But in the average town, Speck says it’s usually possible to find a network of streets that could be made walkable. He calls it the “urban triage plan: streets are either in or out.” Once the “A” streets are identified – the streets that are already walkable, it’s necessary to connect them with “B” streets – the ones that could become walkable with minimal development, then funnel investment to those streets. (Loc 3377.)

skyline_downtown_from39th

Manhattan, looking down 3rd Avenue from 39th Street.

          Here we go back to the very first point in the book – that there is no way to satisfy everyone’s requirements – not every street will be comprised of useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting blocks to walk down, but every town should have at least a small network of such streets. He sums it all up by saying, “The downtown is the only part of the city that belongs to everybody. It doesn’t matter where you may find your home; the downtown is yours, too.

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2 responses to “Review of Jeff Speck’s Walkable City

  1. Pingback: Hudson Pde safety path benefits the CABPRA community | CABPRA·

  2. Excellent article and review. Here in Australia the issues are very similar to the US because most of our suburbs have been built since the car and therefore around the car. Pittwater Council is one of the smallest in Sydney. It also sits in one of the most beautiful spots in the world. Yet the Council plans to spend more than $9M on carparks over the next 2 years. A very tiny fraction on side-walks. Yet as you may have seen from my article we have very few side-walks and walking is a luxury. I have set up another blog which looks at town planning and issues faced by us at Pittwater. It’s called Still PITTwaters: http://stillpittwaters.wordpress.com/

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