In the following interview, we speak with Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time. Speck is an architect and city planner in Washington, D.C., oversaw the Mayor's Institute on City Design, and served on the Sustainability Task Force of the Department of Homeland Security.
Speck explains the four areas that must be addressed in making a city more walkable -- the walk must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting -- and what's involved in achieving these qualities. Walkability can be difficult and costly to create, but fortunately it's not necessary to transform an entire city; even a single walkable street makes a difference.
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Isaac Pino: Just a few more questions before we open it up for your questions.
There's a couple of things that you usually mention when you talk. Let's go ahead and go through -- we might not have time for the entire 10 steps, but what are the elements that make an area or a neighborhood walkable, and the things that you bring up in the book?
Jeff Speck: The 10 steps ... I still haven't reconciled this. It's a little bit of cognitive dissonance in the book. The 10 steps are really four categories, but I had the four categories for a long time, and I wanted more than four chapters, and everyone likes 10, so there are 10 steps.
One chapter deals with biking, one chapter deals with transit, one chapter deals with parking only. There's a chapter on each issue, but what I've been learning and lecturing on now for about a decade is this hierarchy of four requirements. Each one is necessary and not, alone, sufficient.
That is, if we're going to convince Americans to walk -- particularly in places where they don't have to walk, which is most of America; everyone still has a car -- the first step to getting people to have fewer cars is to actually say, "OK, yes, you all have cars, but maybe there are circumstances where you'll choose not to use your car."
If you want to create pedestrians by choice, as opposed to just need, the walk needs to be useful, the walk needs to be safe, it needs to be comfortable, and it needs to be interesting. We've touched on some of these issues.
The useful walk has to do with the proper balance of uses within walking distance and, of course, linking walkable neighborhoods together properly with transit and handling parking properly.
But most American cities -- I'm not talking about the Washingtons or the New Yorks, but the Grand Rapids or the Oklahoma Cities, or the Dallases, even -- do not have the right balance of housing downtown. It's only when they get a lot more housing downtown, in the one part of their city that has the potential to be walkable, that it will perhaps achieve that end.
There are exceptions, but most American cities don't need more affordable housing downtown; they actually need more market-rate housing downtown. They typically have a vast overload of affordable subsidized housing downtown, and nothing else, in many cases.
The safe walk is the part that most people who talk about walkability tend to talk about, which, unfortunately, a lot of people think is all you need to do. It's about 100 things, of which most cities get about half wrong, and it starts with the size of your blocks.
There's a clear correlation, inverse correlation, between block size and safety, for pedestrians. A study of California block sizes -- you double the size of the block, you triple the number of deaths of pedestrians. Which then goes into the number of lanes: Do you have the right number of lanes? Do you have more lanes than you need? You probably do. It depends what kind of city.
Then all the little details, down to the radius of curvature on the curbs at the corner, which used to be so nice and tight that you could just put a stone there, and now it's a 40-foot swoop because things have been redesigned around specialists like fire chiefs and pro-speed highway engineers.