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Sketching the Map of the ‘Walkable City’

Neal Peirce / Nov 30 2012

For Release Sunday, December 2, 2012
© 2012 Washington Post Writers Group

Neal PeirceJeff Speck’s new book, Walkable City, starts 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 other words, truly walkable places.

Today only a handful of American cities are making all those moves correctly – Speck mentions New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, with Denver and Minneapolis close runners-up.

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 and stimulation. 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.”

It needn’t be just 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. However, 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. Ditto 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 autos get used not just for long commutes but 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 is 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, he says, because they just trigger more costs and sprawl. Put subsidies instead into public transit – the golden complement to walking.

Speck favors welcoming cars (as long as they pay a fair parking price) on shopping-area streets. They bring customers and real income to cities. 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 and 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 absorb significant amounts of rainwater, reducing the threats of fresh- and sewage-water commingling in storms.

Small wonder 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

I subscribe without reservation to Speck’s bicycle pitch – perhaps because, like him, I live in Washington 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.

To be sure, Washington is especially bike-friendly: One finds parks, the National Mall’s roadways or quieter streets to avoid the heaviest vehicular traffic. Now an enlightened city government is installing bike lanes – some of them 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 e-mail is

For reprints of Neal Peirce’s column, please contact Washington Post Permissions, c/o PARS International Corp.,, fax 212-221-9195. For newspaper syndication sales, Washington Post Writers Group, 202-334-5375,


  1. Craig Anthony Thomas
    Posted November 30, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Permalink

    I’m reading Phillip Lopate’s chapter “Houston Hide-and-Seek” in the book, Literary Houston . Lopate, UH creative writing prof, puts his finger on Houston’s refusal to accept responsibility for walkability (or more precisely, the lack thereof):
    In Houston, the rights of the pedestrian are held in contempt. For example, outside of downtown, contractors are not even required to reconstruct a public sidewalk after tearing it up to permit new construction. Try walking in most neighborhoods of Houston, even along major thoroughfares. If you are lucky you will find a semblance of sidewalk, one narrow square of concrete, usually cracked, buckled, roiling, edged on both sides by grass plots that, after a rain, resemble flooded rice paddies; it is difficult to walk two abreast and carry on a conversation, but even single-file you cannot advance very far without being stopped by a ditch; an impassable puddle, a miasma of weeds and vines, someone’s property fence, or a parked car forcing you into a roadway — down which most Houstonians choose to walk (if they walk) anyway, daring the cars. Should you swerve in the other direction, you find yourself crossing someone’s lawn, with the awkward sense of trespassing. Houston’s badly kept sidewalks give off a blunt message, “Don’t bother, take the car,” which is particularly hostile to citizens who don’t have cars.

    My post script: No truer description has ever been written about my hometown.

  2. Jerry Kolasinski
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    This is a tremendous summation of a “livable city” and well explains why I love my hometown, Portland, OR.

  3. Jeffrey Kenworthy
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    This is a wonderful article which helps to explain the “peak car use” phenomenon, which is now gaining increasing prominence in the USA and indeed in many developed countries and cities, based on quantitative analyses. There are many factors contributing to this, including the cultural changes which value urbanism over automobile dependence, density over sprawl and indeed it seems, at least with many younger people, transit over cars, where, for one thing, they can more readily and legally use their mobile communication devices. The main thing, however, seems to be the physical limits to higher car use in urban areas. Cities have a hit a wall of congestion, excessive travel times and limits in the supply of extra road capacity, lest there be nothing left of the urban landscape other than roads and parking.

    There does, however, appear to be one glaring error in the story and that is the 3.2 million traffic fatalities in the USA (assuming you are meaning to refer to an annual figure, which would be the usual approach, and not some unspecified cumulative figure?). The actual figures over the last years in the USA have been in the order of 40,000 traffic deaths nationwide. In 2009 it was 35,900 and it is generally declining (it was 46,800 in 1990 for example). The figure of 3.2 million may be referring to traffic accidents resulting in injury or death (though I could not find it in the published statistics), but annual traffic fatalities are of course not even vaguely in the realm of 3.2 million per year in the USA.

    In any case, one cannot generally quote raw numbers of anything if the aim is to prove that one country is worse or better than another. In the case of traffic fatalities one needs to compare figures on the basis of per capita data or per vehicle or per passenger mile of travel. It is true however, that compared to other wealthy nations, the USA is most likely still the highest in transport-related fatalities, primarily due to the highest level of “exposure” to automobile traffic and excessive car use compared to any other country.

    I believe you should clarify or correct this figure as it may find its way into incorrect wider usage.

  4. Posted December 1, 2012 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    As Aristotle insisted, before beginning any enterprise, be clear as to the fundamental end that you’re trying to achieve. In recent years, forward looking urbanists have invoked walkability as the fundamental organizing objective. I would add a second fundamental: sociality. Homo sapiens is a social animal. Like other social animals, if given the opportunity, we tend to congregate. Walkability is a prerequisite to sociality, but won’t get you there unless sociality is consciously recognized as a worthy goal. Walkability will get you sidewalks, small blocks, crosswalks, skinny streets, pedestrian scaled street lamps, and buildings up to the sidewalks. Respect for human sociality will make you pay attention to how inviting building frontages are, the amount and quality of building fenestration, the strategic siting of gathering places that allow for ready social access, and whether the designs of squares and parks actually allow people to congregate. Nowadays we assume that human sociality is satisfied with cell phones and Facebook accounts. Yes, we are going back to building in the urban core with buildings accessible from sidewalks and transit, but a glistening high rise that has only an obligatory door on the ground floor is a minor improvement to our cities. Walkability makes for better urbanism. Walkability plus sociality makes for great urbanism.

  5. Barry Schwartz
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    Tell Mr. Speck to come to Cincinnati. We are in the process of passing a form-based code ffor walkable. According to Opticos Design, one of ouw consultants on this project, and the guru of FBC, Cincinnati has the infrastructure in place. It just needs ehancement. The City is building/outlining bike trails everywhere. New city plan focuses on walkable communities. Our downtown also now has short-term car rentals for those who do not need or want a car. Will be expanded. Complete Streets are a big part of FBC.

  6. Ruth L. Love
    Posted December 1, 2012 at 7:35 pm | Permalink

    I’m writing from a walkable city, Portland, Oregon. In the city of roses this season there is much disagreement about whether developers of new in-fill apartment houses should provide minimum amount of off-street parking. The neighborhoods of in-fill have little on-street parking to spare. Yet residents of these new developments still own cars even though they bike, bus or walk to work. Even a very green household may still retain a car for evening and weekend use, traveling to more distant city parts for doctor/dentist appointments, etc. Even with emergence of walkable cties we are a long way from doing without autos. Look at European cities. The touristic impression is that car ownership has increased in Vienna, London, and other world-class walkable cities. Maybe real data will show I’m wrong.

  7. Rob Steuteville
    Posted December 2, 2012 at 8:20 am | Permalink

    @jeffrey kenworthy
    I believe Speck’s book refers to total automobile deaths in US history, which exceeds deaths from all US wars combined.

  8. Mighk Wilson
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    A common mistake that cities make is creating segregated spaces for bicyclists. They’re not only bad for cyclists, as they guide cyclists into blind-spots and turning conflicts with motorists, but they also make conditions worse for pedestrians. First, by moving the bicyclist out of the way of the motorist, they let motorists drive faster. Second, they add unnecessary width to the roadway, which both encourages higher speeds and increases walk times. And third, they add to the corner radius which encourages higher turning speeds and poorer yielding to those in the crosswalks.
    The better solution is to keep streets as narrow as possible to keep speeds down and encourage bicyclists to behave like regular vehicle drivers, and take the reduced roadway space and give it to the pedestrian and street trees.

  9. Larry
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    “Today only a handful of American cities are making all those moves correctly – Speck mentions New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle, with Denver and Minneapolis close runners-up.”

    Having lived most of my life in Portland, Oregon…..upon retirement in 2006, I moved to the Tampa, FL, area….where I have seen the complete opposite of what I experienced in Portland: Ugly urban sprawl, no decent regional public transit (no light-rail, no inner-city-wide streetcar system), but…everywhere there continues to be these fantastically wider and wider stretches of major arterials for an ever-burgeoning population.

  10. Neal Peirce
    Posted December 3, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

    The statistic of 3.5 million is an all-time, historic one — a cumulative figure. Source: the book, “UnPlanning,” by Charles Seigel, page 30

  11. Neal Peirce
    Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Comment from Tyler Little of Seattle:
    I found my passion for biking six years ago on my first of six annual Seattle to Portland bike rides. I agree with your article “Sketching the map of truly walkable cities” pointing out that Seattle is one of the truly walkable and ride able cities thanks to its expansive trails. With the crowded roads and gas prices the way they are going many people realize something needs to change. I too believe biking is the future American needs.
    Cycling has multiple benefits and I like the way it makes me feel great. It is healthy, really good exercise and it gets me to where I want to go. At the same time I am able to experience the beauty of the trees and Seattle scenery at almost zero cost. Cascade Bike Club who sponsors the Seattle to Portland ride and many other rides, is the largest bike club in the United States. Cities across the country should start making the move to encourage biking and green transportation. I am confident with continued lobbying for the creation of new laws and policies, Seattle will continue to be a model for setting safety standards for cars, bikes and pedestrians alike. Seattle can lead the way on how to incorporate biking beautifully and enjoyably into an urban setting.

  12. Neal Peirce
    Posted December 9, 2012 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Message from J-L Brussac of Vancouver, B.C.:

    I read, and liked, your column about walkable cities. Strangely enough, on the same weekend the Globe and Mail (a Canadian newspaper. I live in Western Canada) published a favorable critic of Jeff Speck’s very same book.

    My only comment will be about shopping streets.
    Here in Vancouver the merchants are adamant that cars MUST park right by their stores or the stores will go bankrupt. This is fine in suburban area or even in midtown areas but anyone that is even vaguely familiar with our downtown shopping streets knows that:
    1-it is easier to win a lottery than finding a parking spot within a block or 2 of a store or restaurant one want to patronize.
    2-by 3 pm–well before stores close, parking on one side of the street is no longer allowed and trucks tow away delinquent cars at once.
    3-parking downtown on the street or in a parking garage is quite expensive.

    Not to mention of course that the point of a shopping street is that one will be walking up and down the street to check many stores..Shopping streets are walkable streets by excellence.

    I was born in a small but well-known European town that goes back to at least 300 B.C. I am somewhat around your age and remember that in my teen years the main shopping street (since Roman times…) had only 2 car lanes, one of them for parking. On Fridays and Saturdays there were so many shoppers that many of them had no choice but to walk on the car lane.

    I wondered at the time why any driver would even bother to drive on that street, knowing that he would be stuck behind pedestrians. But then there is a street a block from my home in Vancouver that has been totally disrupted by work crews for months and will be for more months, YET drivers insist on driving there instead of changing their route to less busy streets nearby.

    In 1976 the 2 major shopping streets in my birth town, along with a few small nearby ones—about 2.5 miles in total length— were turned into car-free streets, as many streets all over Europe were at the time.
    From 2000 to 2003 the town built 3 tramway lines downtown. This drastically reduced the number of car lanes downtown and increased the number of car-free streets.
    As a result the number of downtown shoppers soared (parking a car in a Park and Ride lot in the suburbs cost around 3 Euros to park for the whole day and all the occupants of the car get a free tram ticket to downtown and back)

    Car-free streets aren’t only found in Europe, where practically each town, big or small, has some. I have seen a few myself in Japan and in China and I know that they are also found in the Middle-East, North Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South America..Interestingly the popularity of pedestrian streets has risen along with the increase of public transit and biking.

    There is a lot of resentment in Vancouver about cyclists. Both merchants and car drivers are hostile towards bikes and complain bitterly about the few dedicated bike lanes there are. I do not drive–by choice–and do not bike either as I wouldn’t feel safe at all. I can’t understand why some young people insist on biking without lights on major roads without a bike lane, as if they were medieval knights fighting against a dragon.

    I biked a lot in my teen years, even going to a downtown school in my birth town from a nearby suburb across the river. We wore normal street clothes, no helmet (they still aren’t compulsory in Europe) but chose our route carefully. Most of the biking was done on weekends and school vacations when I stayed in the country home of my parents or other relatives.
    When I lived in France I drove a car as I worked for a builder in the Dordogne region and our work sites were scattered all over. Not terribly far apart for the most part, but as I went back and forth (I designed houses then supervised their construction) between sites, the office and clients homes it sure wouldn’t have been practical to use a bike, even one that had a small gas motor.

    When I first went to Japan in the 90s I was amazed by the number of bikes even in downtown Osaka and Tokyo. Not just younger people but also older ones. like truly old..Plain cheap bikes and street clothes.
    What also amazed me was their pedestrian only shopping streets ….a whole length of a street (at least 4 to 6 long blocks, some much longer—is closed off to cars and has a glass roof over it.

    Happy walking and biking!


    Mr. J-L Brussac

    Vancouver, Canada