Many of us seem to know bad city planning when we see it. We may be stuck in traffic and cursing our modern day plight. We may get frustrated when we can’t find parking in front of our final destination, but forget all the times we’ve driven by empty parking lots. We may look out our window and lament the lack of trees & greenspaces. Incomplete sidewalks, condos without infrastructure, boring or non-existent retail or office space: there are many gripes in our contemporary suburban life that provide evidence of poor planning.
In the small and midsized cities where most Americans spend their lives, the daily decisions of local officials are still, more often than not, making their lives worse. This is not bat planning but the absence of planning, or rather, decision-making disconnected from planning. – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
Contemporary suburban planning rests at a crossroads between the auto-centrism of the mid-20th century and a sustainable multi-modal future. Personally, I have hope that the current Township of Langley council can start to swing the long trend of auto-centric planning and reset a course for a sustainable, more walkable future. As the public becomes increasingly educated on the benefits of good urban planning, the more we can and will push the Mayor & Council to make the right decisions (not to mention, elect those who aren’t stuck in a petroleum-based 1950’s mindset).
Why is walkability so central to city planning?
“Walkability” is not as ambiguous as some other buzzwords, such as “sustainability”. When someone says “sustainability”, you can think of many different things, many of which could actually be contradictory. The buzzword becomes an oversaturated and even abused term. Political spin doctors love “sustainability”.
However, “walkability” is arguably focused on just ONE ideal: how to get more people walking. Everything else flows from it. Below are 6 reasons, as briefly as I can make them, that walkability is not only the ultimate end goal in city planning, but also the ultimate means to that end. It isn’t a mistake that there isn’t a single auto-oriented city in the Mercer Report’s Top 50, the gold standard in quality-of-life rankings.
1) SOCIAL: A FRIENDLIER NEIGHBOURHOOD
The pervasiveness of social media has made our culture both more connected and yet arguably more lonely. A problem that is exasperated in the suburbs is that a social scene that is accessible primarily by car is not much of a social scene. As my urbanist hero Jeff Speck laments, a lack of pedestrian culture is not conducive to the random encounters that lead to organic, authentic friendships. One only has to witness the typical drop-off and pick-up routine at Langley’s schools to see how a car-dependent community limits regular opportunity for building relationships.
Further to just robbing of us potential human interaction, our regular commutes often turn us into Dr. Jekyll. In his masterful book, “Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do”, Tom Vanderbilt recalls the 1950 Disney short film Motor Mania whereby Goofy’s courteous, model citizen “Mr. Walker” turns into the monstrous “Mr. Wheeler” and then back again. Does this sound familiar? Have you ever considered that if we acted in while walking on the street as we do in the car, many of us would be considered insane or even psychotic? Vanderbilt calls this “modal bias” meaning we become how we move. The “personal armour” of the modern day vehicle mirrors the comparable anonymity of hiding behind a computer screen and spewing vehement rhetoric. Safe behind our protective barriers of steel and technology, we feel free to not conduct ourselves as “normal” social beings would while walking around town – or anywhere else.
In Florida, known for its auto-centric cities, one study found that university students with 45 minute commutes (or about the same from Langley to Vancouver), suffered from “higher blood pressure, higher blood rates and lower frustration tolerance”. The freedom of driving has become replaced with the anxiety of commuting. Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman found that commuting ranks as the least favourite regular activity, even lower than housework. The second highest (only after sex), was “socializing after work”.
“…each ten additional minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10% – fewer public meetings attended, fewer committees chaired, fewer petitions signed, fewer church services attended, and so on.”
-Robert Putnam, Bowling Alone (2000)
A walkable neighbourhood is simply a friendlier, more social neighbourhood.
2) DEMOGRAPHIC: ATTRACTING MILLENNIALS & BOOMERS
The two largest age cohorts that have ever walked the planet are on the move: baby boomers (77 million in the United States) and the Millennials (83 million in the United States). Millennials also now make up 35% of the American labour force compared to the Boomers 31%. The interesting thing is that demand for walkability has proven to be universal among both of these populous cohorts. Since the late 1990’s, the share of miles driven by Americans aged 20-29 has fallen from 20.8% to 13.7%. In the late 1970’s, 8% of 19-year-olds didn’t have driver’s licenses – today, that number is 23%. There is undeniably a major shift in how Millennials view cars – it is no longer a source of freedom, it is, rather, a liability. It is not surprising that, according to a study by Patrick Doherty & Christopher Leinberger, 77% of Millennials plan to live in an urban environment. If a municipality is looking to attract future residents and workers, it needs to adjust to this reality.
Furthermore, baby boomers are now empty nesters. Suburban homes are now unnecessarily large. As this colossal cohort ages, the mechanics of driving will also become an issue. Having amenities and services such as transit, health care, culture, groceries and more within a short distance becomes a priority. In our own region, we can look at how the community of White Rock continues to attract a greyer populace by densifying around services that target seniors. Interestingly enough, baby boomers who are transitioning from the single family home still want to live in their current community, often where their adult children are, which is going to require a paradigm shift in suburban planning. Focusing on building the bedroom communities of the past is not going to work for our generational cycles.
In order for any municipality to remain competitive in the competition for tax base, cities must address the needs and desires of both the aging, yet still extremely influential baby boomer population in addition to the massive Millennial invasion, many of who are now establishing careers and raising families.
3) ECONOMIC: EFFICIENCIES AT HOME, IN GOVERNMENT
Unfortunately, the draw of the larger, less expensive homes in the suburbs, plus stabilized gas prices, cheaper car leases and no bridge tolls have led to longer commutes, wasted time in traffic, and poor investments in infrastructure.
“The model American male devotes more than 1600 hours a year to his car… He earns the money to put down to meet the monthly installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes and tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering the resources for it… In countries deprived of transportation industry, people manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate only 3 to 8% of their society’s budget to traffic instead of 28%” -Ivan Illich, Toward a History of Needs (1973)
Many suburbs of North America are notorious bedroom communities, gaining economic benefit almost exclusively from property tax rolls. This type of municipality has limited commercial economy and a high cost of a road network to take people away from their place of residence to their places of work and leisure. This all ends up as inefficient tax expenditures.
The cost for a municipality to build out and service car-based sprawl neighbourhoods is much more expensive per capita than in a densified walkable or transit-based areas. Servicing 500 households along 1 kilometre instead of 5 kilometers has a serious impact on both the city budget, especially when you consider road building, garbage services and water, and the household budget, when you factor in the true cost of the automobile on our taxes.
A more walkable community means more dollars staying in the local economy. Pedestrians spend their money as far as their feet can take them at a fraction of the cost to the city, either allowing a municipality to cut taxes or spend on better infrastructure and services. Drivers, on the other hand, are more apt to head to “destination retail”. While the debate between whether urban living or a suburban lifestyle is less expensive for individual households, there is no question that having more residences within a walking distance to shopping, entertainment and work is better for the local economy.
On a macro level, Americans send $612,5000 overseas every minute to the Middle East and Russia for its car addiction. As Jeff Speck states, this 1/3 of a trillion dollars every year is literally paying for the massive metrorail systems in Middle Eastern systems (my note: and possibly even paying for Russian influence on American democracy). The American obsession with the car is paying for trains in oil rich countries. Jeff Speck also points out the further irony of the $700 billion in military expenditures to protect foreign interests.
4) HEALTH: FIGHTING OBESITY, LIVING LONGER
A car-based community eliminates the need for the “useful walk”. In 1969, 50% of children in the United States walked to school; today, only 15% walk to school. 1/3rd of children born after 2000 will become diabetic. In the mid-1970’s, 1 in 10 of Americans were obese. Despite advances in nutritional education, 1 in 3 of Americans were obese by 2007. In 1991, not one state had an adult obesity rate over 20%; by 2007, only one state (Colorado) had an adult obesity rate under 20%. Excessive weight now kills more Americans than smoking. Yet we know more than ever about nutrition and exercise. In 2004, three authors published Urban Sprawl and Public Health, which masterfully connected the relationship between urban planning and health. Unfortunately, not enough cities, especially suburbs, are taking this knowledge seriously.
Since that 2004 publication, Jeff Speck writes, there have been numerous city-specific studies begging for planners to consider the evidence:
- For every additional five minutes Atlanta-area residents drove each day, they were 3% more likely to be obese (The Option of Urbanism, Leinberger)
- Also in Atlanta, the proportion of obese white males declined from 23% to 13% as neighbourhood residential density increased from less than 2 to more than 8 dwellings per acre (Urban Sprawl and Public Health, Frumkin, Frank & Jackson)
- Drivers who switch to public transit drop an average of 5 lbs (Carjacked, Lutz & Fernandez)
- 60% of San Diego residents in a “low-walkable” neighbourhood were overweight, compared to only 35% in a “high-walkable” neighbourhood (Urban Sprawl and Public Health, Frumkin, Frank & Jackson)
- A 6 year analysis of 100,000 Massachusetts residents found that the lowest body mass index averages were located in Boston and its inner-ring suburbs, while the highest were found in car-dependent neighbourhoods around the I-495. According to the Boston Globe: “health officials suggest these higher rates are due, in part, to a lack of opportunities for everyday recreation and the time-squeezed lifestyle of many residents who have long commutes.” (A Matter of Size, Noonan)
According to National Geographic host and author Dan Buettner who wrotr The Blue Zones: Lesson for Living Longer from Peopel Who’ve Lived the Longest, the first lesson to living longer is to “be active without having to think about it.” Fitness superstars and athletes don’t live longer – it is the regular people who live in a culture that “engage in regular, low intensity physical activity, often part of a daily work routine” who live longest. If you’re stuck in traffic commute to your desk job, how is that achieved?
5) SAFETY: ENDING CAR-NAGE, SAVING LIVES
I’ve never forgot the sound of a screeching car hitting a bicycle a fraction of its size. I had just raced across the 22 feet or so of our Cloverdale cul-de-sac with my bicycle when a neighbour -a trusted, well respected local judge – hit my younger sister who was chasing after me in broad daylight with his car. Thankfully, her bicycle took the brunt of the damage and my sister only broke her collar bone. Since witnessing this violence in our quiet 14-home subdivision, I’ve had no bias towards thinking I was any safer in a cul-de-sac than anywhere else. A few decades later I would discover that the the evidence was against suburban sprawl in more ways than one: that broad lanes led to speeding drivers & poor suburban design offered a very false sense of security.
Almost 3,000 Canadians lose their lives every year directly due to motor vehicle accidents. In the United States, more people have lost their lives in car accidents since the early 1900’s than all their wars combined. The authors of “Carjacked”, Catherine and Anne Lutz, peg the annual economic cost of car based destruction at $433 billion. There is a 1 in 3 chance that we will eventually be seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident. It’s all so prevalent that we’ve become so desensitized to this weapon of mass destruction.
Yet our economy and lifestyles have become so dependent on the car and that isn’t going to change. But smart pedestrian based planning has proven to mitigate the risk. While the USA has a traffic fatality rate of 10.9 per 100,000 (2013 – which is actually down from 14.5 prior to the 2008 economic collapse), Canada has 6.0, Germany has 4.7 and the United Kingdom 2.9.
Some walkable American cities beat them all: New York, San Francisco and Portland all have fatality rates under 3.0. Yet cities like Tampa, Orlando and Atlanta who have to changed their car-dependent sprawl continue to see traffic fatality rates around 13-17 deaths per 100,000. This is an incredible difference. One thing that every author I’ve read is this: condensed, older, grid road network cities have MUCH lower traffic fatalities than newer sprawled out cities.
“This discussion becomes particularly ironic when we consider how many people through the decades have decamped from the city into the suburbs ostensibly for the safety of their families… Alan Durning, who analyzed the combined risk of dying from two causes – traffic crashes and crime – in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, BC… if you add the two factors together, you are 19% safer in the inner city than in the outer suburbs.” – Jeff Speck, “Walkable City”
6) ENVIRONMENTAL: A TRUE SUSTAINABLE PATH
Finally, one of the most obvious reasons that cities should plan walkable neighbourhoods is to promote a better quality of life through environmental stewardship. I can’t convince the minds of climate change deniers here, but if you already buy into the idea that protecting the environment is a good thing for one reason or another, you probably already understand the detrimental affect our addiction to cars has on our quality of life. What you may not know is that it is our suburbs and exurbs that emit the most carbon per person, not the cities (as shown in reports & maps by Scott Bernstein, Center for Neighborhood Technology, Chicago).
Some drivers might look to the electric car to end the addiction to oil. I don’t have space here to go through the problems with hybrids and electric cars here, but if you’re interested, be sure to check out the chapter entitled “The Wrong Color Green” in Jeff Speck’s Walkable City.
“What do you expect when you put people in cars they feel good (or at least less guilt) about driving, which are also cheap to buy and run? Naturally, they drive them more. So much more, in fact, that they obliterate energy gains made by increased fuel efficiency.” – Firmin DeBrabander (“What if Green Products Make Us Pollute More?”)
However, what is extremely important for cities to note and act on is much more concerning, yet possible even easier to fix at the local level:
The real problem with cars is… that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging… The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway; it’s everything else the Hummer makes possible – the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes.” – David Owen, Green Metropolis
Cities are just as susceptible to greenwashing as individual households. Many municipalities around North America have been guilty of building a few “green” facilities, installing a handful of electric chargers and offering small subsidies for green built homes, yet at the same time encouraging unwalkable, sprawl-like neighbourhoods as though green gimmicks make up for the lack of sustainable development. The fact is, they don’t. In a 2011 EPA study that compared drivable vs walkable locations, convention construction vs green builds, single family vs multifamily, and conventional gasoline cars vs hybrid cars, there was one clear result:
“…while every factor counts, none counts as much as walkability. Specifically… As a result, the most greenhome (with Prius) in sprawl still loses out to the least green home in a walkable neighbourhood.” – Jeff Speck, Walkable City
*Also see New Urban Network’s “Study: Transit Outperforms Green Buildings”
Ironically, the producers of that study decided to build their LEED-certified HQ in an auto-oriented exurb of a Kansas that has a WalkScore of 28.
“LEED architecture without good urban design is like cutting down the rainforest using hybird-powered bulldozers.” – Dan Malouff
- The average New Yorker uses approximately 1/3 the electricity as the average resident of Dallas and generates 1/3 the greenhouse gases of the average American (Speck, Walkable City)
- The average resident of Manhattan today uses a rate of gasoline similar to that of the typical American in the 1920’s (Owen, Green Metropolis)
- The greatest reduction in driving miles happens in suburban densification (ie from large lot sprawl of 2 UPA to 10-20 UPA) as opposed to increased urban density (ie 100+ UPA) (John Holtzclaw, “Using Residential Patterns and Transit to Decrease Auto Dependence and Costs”)
“We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of the city.” – Ed Glaeser
We have some incredible opportunities to make our cities more walkable, especially in the suburbs. We have the facts, but do we have the will? It takes more than political will – it takes social & individual will. We can do better than we are – much, much better. How we do this in the Township of Langley will be the underlying theme of this website. In the coming months, however, I will move beyond the “why” and provide specific examples on the “how”: how do we make our community a more walkable one. Some of the concepts that I argue for are counter-intuitive which requires some explanation, whereas others are obvious and just involve overcoming lobbying from special interests. My hope is that we can all enjoy the benefits of a more walkable community and you, the reader, will join me in advocating for the same hope.