Wednesday, January 21, 2015

book review: Walkable City

One of my fascinations in life has always been learning about how people interact with their environment: how we use our natural resources, what we do with our waste, how we build our shelters, what we eat, and how we get around. This fascination led me to pick up this book (a real paperback, in a real bookstore, but I passed it on to a friend when I finished it), Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, by Jeff Speck

Jeff also co-wrote, Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream, and has an extensive background in the education of urban planners and ordinary citizens on how to build our environment to enable people to live well. Since I enjoy an occasional walk (jk, I depend on my feet daily to get me to work, yoga, food and beverage sources, volunteer meetings, etc.), this book really struck a chord.

He outlines his ten steps to walkability, divided into 4 categories. I'll shamelessly list them verbatim here:

The Useful Walk
1. Put cars in their place
2. Mix the uses 
3. Get the parking right 
4. Let transit work

The Safe Walk
5. Protect the pedestrian
6. Welcome bikes

The Comfortable Walk
7. Shape the spaces 
8. Plant trees

The Interesting Walk
9. Make friendly and unique faces (of buildings)
10. Pick your winners (some more examples of good walkable cities)


One of the take-aways I learned was the concept of induced demand. Highway planners are often challenged by people's complaints of traffic congestion. Their response has usually been to build more highways. Studies have shown that the new highways quickly become just as congested. The more roads there are, the more we drive. When roads are more restricted, people find other routes, use public transportation, or choose not to travel.

I also found the sections on urban roads and driving habits interesting. Jeff backs up each one of his anecdotes about driving, pedestrians and bike traffic with accident statistics. For instance, 4-way stop signs are actually one of the safest traffic control devices, because everyone has to slow down and think. Narrower driving lanes and eliminating curbs cause drivers to slow down, making everyone safer. Opening your driver's side door with your right hand forces you to turn your head enabling you to see a bike rider passing you if you are parallel parking on a city street. 

I wish I could give a copy of this book to every urban planner and traffic engineer out there.  Hopefully some of them are reading it.  For me, a layman, I notice the street scene more on my walks about town. I'm more aware of the building facades, the plants, the sidewalks and curbs. It makes my walks more interesting just to notice examples of the concepts in his writing.