Columnist: Sketching The Map Of The 'Walkable City'

December 3, 2012

By Neil Peirce

Jeff Speck's new book -- "Walkable City" -- starts off with a chilling quote as he laments the fate of the many American cities plagued by "fattened roads, emaciated sidewalks, deleted trees, fry-pit drive-thrus, and 10-acre parking lots."

Speck has seen a lot of urban disasters in his career advising cities on their development choices. But the thrust of his book is anything but downbeat. Rich rewards, he argues, await cities that move to tame traffic and put pedestrians first, create attractive streetscapes, mix uses, foster smart transit, and create unique, quality places. In another word, truly walkable places.

Currently only a handful of American cities are making all those moves correctly -- Speck mentions New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

But the formula of those top cities is precisely what today's "millennials" -- born after 1981 -- vastly favor: urban communities with active street life, entertainment, stimulation. Or as demographer William Frey puts it, "A new image of urban America is in the making. What used to be white flight to the suburbs turning into 'bright flight' to the cities."

And it needn't just be the millennials: "Empty nesters" (the vast-post World War II generation) include millions tired of maintaining their suburban homes and ready, in many cases, to opt for walkable, livable communities. 

So opportunities for cities are exciting. Though, Speck argues, this means reining in specialists who don't see the whole city's needs. He singles out school departments that push for larger facilities instead of cheaper-to-maintain neighborhood schools. Or public works departments that insist neighborhoods be designed principally around trash and snow removal.

He reserves special criticism for transportation departments that keep pushing wide roadways to let traffic move more rapidly -- roadways so big and dangerous they trigger vast numbers of serious accidents (adding to America's world-leading total of 3.2 million traffic fatalities).

The nation's sprawling development patterns mean that autos get used not just for long commutes but also for rounds of small daily errands. Vast wealth flows out of communities to pay for gasoline. Sedentary auto-dependent lifestyles exacerbate obesity levels that throw a dark shadow over our national future.

The solution Speck carries to cities: "Put cars in their place." Discourage big new roads. Tear down obsolete urban freeways. Recognize that "free" or low-cost streetside and employer parking gets paid for in taxes, goods, meals or services paid for by everyone, drivers or not. Stop minimum parking requirements for office, shopping and housing complexes because they just trigger more costs and sprawl. Put subsidies instead into public transit -- the golden complement to walking.

Speck does favor welcoming cars (as long as they pay a fair parking price) on shopping-area streets -- they bring customers, real city income. But for vibrant street life, he advocates pushing ugly open-air parking lots and garages some blocks away from major shopping areas.

But for a truly walkable, accessible, friendly American streetscape, Speck adds two other key factors: trees and bikes.

Why trees? They add loveliness and pleasure to walking, at maturity even a cathedral-like street canopy. They are nature's best shade providers. They reduce temperatures in hot weather -- more vital than ever as global warming advances. They significantly increase property values. They absorb tailpipe emissions, cleansing the air. They slow cars, meaning fewer life-threatening accidents. And they also absorb significant amounts of rainwater, reducing the threats of fresh- and sewage-water commingling in storms.

Small wonder that Speck inveighs against traffic engineers who want to remove street trees for fear cars will crash into them.

And bikes? Speck argues that "cycling has got to be the most efficient, healthful, empowering, and sustainable form of transportation there is." With the same amount of energy as walking, a bicyclist can travel three times farther. Bike commuters get the exercise car drivers don't. And happily, city bike riding is on a dramatic upswing right now.

I subscribe without reservation to Speck's bicycle pitch -- perhaps because, like him, I live in Washington, D.C., and have been cycling all over town for several decades. Like him, I enjoy the fresh air, the exercise, and easily beating auto (and often even subway) travel time.

Washington, to be sure, is especially bike-friendly: One finds parks, the National Mall's roadways or quieter streets to avoid the heaviest vehicular traffic. And now an enlightened city government is installing bike lanes -- some especially well-protected from traffic by vertical plastic posts -- all around town.

From New York, Minneapolis, Portland, Tucson and other cities, Speck amasses evidence that biking is less dangerous, reduces accidents, and saves more money than popularly thought.

Could we really have less motorized, calmer, quieter, truly livable global cityscapes? Two feet, on the ground or on pedals, may be our best formula ever -- and now.

Neal Peirce's email address is nrp@citistates.com.

(c) 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities.