WHAT MAKES A NEIGHBORHOOD WALKABLE? Part 1

What makes a neighborhood walkable?

One aspect is the physical quality of the walk: whether there are good sidewalks and crosswalks, for example. Another aspect has to do with how much traffic you have to contend with. There’s also the distance to destinations, and the safety of the places you’re walking through. What about choice of route? Is there only one way to get where you’re going, or are there multiple ways? Do you have to go out of your way or can you go pretty directly? Do you feel like a stranger in a world made for cars, or can you enjoy the walk as a pedestrian?

One of the most important characteristics of a walkable neighborhood is the configuration of streets and paths and what kind of network they form — in other words, connectivity. It affects many of the other criteria, like traffic, distance and directness. Here are a few examples.

The diagram on the left has good connectivity; the one on the right has poor connectivity.

This one (from the State of Kentucky) also shows good connectivity on the left and poor connectivity on the right. Imagine if you live in the house and are trying to get to the market or the school. In the neighborhood on the left, you can walk on small residential streets, and you have a choice of routes, so you won’t get bored. In the neighborhood on the right, no matter whether you are going to the market or the school, you have to go out onto the arterial street. Chances are you won’t want to walk, so you will drive. Everyone else is doing the same thing, so those arterial streets will be much more congested than the ones in the left-hand diagram. What happens to traffic is shown in the following diagrams.

Here again we see good connectivity on the left. This is called traditional development because this type of pattern was common the world over for centuries. The streets and land uses are connected. The right-hand diagram shows what has become conventional in the last 60 years. Each land use is in its own pod and you have to go on the arterial streets to get from home to school, school to shopping, work to home, etc.

Here are the travel patterns in both of those neighborhoods. In the traditional neighborhood, local trips stay on local streets, leaving the arterial street to serve its function for long-distance trips.  Walking and biking are attractive alternatives. In the conventional neighborhood, local trips go onto the arterial street, causing congestion for locals and long-distance travelers alike. Walking and biking are not pleasant. And because so much traffic is on one street, it becomes a magnet for big box stores and strip malls. 

Let’s see how some of these examples work in the real world.

This is Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where I grew up. It was developed in the 1920s. The elementary school and the high school are easily walkable and can be approached from all directions. The triangular space between three busy streets west of the elementary school was our area to roam. We could walk and ride our bikes all through there without crossing any arterial streets.

This is Alpharetta GA, a suburb of Atlanta. The scale is the same, and the density looks similar. But you can see that the streets are laid out so they connect as little as possible. Each neighborhood is in its own separate pod. If you want to go just about anywhere from here, you have to go out onto the busy streets. I have drawn lines around some of the pods. Now see the park with the ball fields in the upper center? Imagine you live in the house marked A. You could easily walk to the park if there were a road or path. But to take the official route, you would have to follow the blue line. (And you can be pretty sure your Mom would drive you.) So this neighborhood is not convenient for walking, but it’s obviously very highly sophisticated and professionally planned to be this way.

(I suspect that the spaces between the pods in Alpharetta are drainage ways. That is certainly something to incorporate into a development. In Cleveland Heights, they put a stream underground and covered it with a street called Meadowbrook — not a good idea. But there could be a happy medium with well-placed bridges and culverts.)

Now let’s look at what happens in small towns and exurban areas.

Here is Chagrin Falls, Ohio (population about 4,000). I visited there often after my mother moved there. The village has a river through the downtown, old mill buildings, and radial streets converging at the bridge. There are several blocks of charming houses within a 1/2 mile of downtown, and everyone can walk there. A little further out though, we see the disconnected subdivisions. The high school is visible to the right of the word “Falls,” and it has only one entrance. If you live in house A or B, how are you supposed to get to the school?

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A few miles further out, this is what you see. Each subdivision is its own world. The lack of connection is almost a joke.

The next largest city to the south is Solon, Ohio (population about 23,000). I went to this grocery store there, which is about 5 years old. 

The shopping plaza was redeveloped to look like an old fashioned downtown. But it doesn’t function like one! In an old fashioned downtown, if you lived nearby you would stroll to the cafe and greet your neighbors, pick up some groceries, stop at the post office or bank, and walk home. Not here.

This cafe is attached to the grocery store. See the apartments to the left of the photo? If those residents could walk to the cafe and market, it would only take a couple of minutes. But they are being “protected” from it with a fence, a berm, a wall and a ditch! If they go by the road, the distance to the market is half a mile. 

I have a hobby of looking for the informal paths (known as “desire lines”) that people create to make up for deficits in the pedestrian infrastructure. And sure enough, I found one further down along the berm.  People had put cardboard over the wet places. Two guys were just walking through it when I came by.

Interestingly, the Solon city plan says that when the shopping plaza is redeveloped, there should be paths to these apartments, but it wasn’t done.

In this picture, you can see another apartment complex behind the store. See those 2 people back by the corner of the parking lot? They are using another informal path between the buildings. I went over there just when 2 more people walked through.

There is a library back there as well, but no provision for pedestrians, and I’m sure in the winter, these areas are blocked with piles of snow.


Why do developers make sure that streets don’t connect?. 

One reason is that people don’t want cars driving by their homes and they don’t want to see or hear parking lots or delivery trucks. That makes for nice peaceful residential streets. But there are unintended consequences. People cannot easily walk to places where they want to go; they have to improvise and go through brush and over berms, or else walk on the arterial streets, which is no fun and takes much longer. Driving on the arterials is not so great either when they get clogged with traffic and there are so many lights and turn lanes. Instead of some traffic on all the streets, as in a connected network, we put almost no traffic on the residential streets and all the traffic on the arterials. It reminds me of the polarization that’s happening in all aspects of society. 

Well, some people have figured out that disconnected networks have a lot of disadvantages, and they are trying to encourage change.  (The Kentucky model ordinance shown earlier is one example). The neat thing is that connectivity can be quantified. And once you quantify it, you can require developers to produce it. You can also correlate it with other things, like obesity rates and real estate values. More on that in the next post.

 

 

 

WHAT MAKES A NEIGHBORHOOD WALKABLE? Part 2

MEASURING WALKABILITY

A connectivity index is a simple way to measure the connectivity of a street network. The index defines two aspects of a network: nodes and links. Nodes are intersections, dead ends or cul-de-sac heads. Links are the streets that link the nodes together. You divide the number of links by the number of nodes to get the connectivity index. An example is shown here, from the Kentucky model ordinance. A disconnected network with a lot of dead ends and cul-de-sacs has fewer links than a grid network. A grid network doesn’t have to have streets that are straight, by the way; they can be curvy, it just matters that they link up with each other. The goal is to have an index of 1.4 or greater. Some cities actually require new subdivisions to achieve this measure.

 

 

Notice that in the second diagram, one internal connection has been made and two links have been added to connect the subdivision to adjacent land. That improves walkability by allowing more direct routes; it also improves safety by creating more than one entrance and exit to the neighborhood.

 

Obviously you need more than connected streets to make a place walkable. You need to be close to destinations like stores, restaurants, schools, parks, and transit stops. You need good sidewalks or paths, a feeling of safety, and so on.

That leads to more ways to measure walkability.

The Walkability Checklist is sponsored by several different organizations. It gets down into the weeds about the condition of a particular walk, but it doesn’t address the network issues at all. This checklist is good for bringing up problems to your city or town: problems such as dangerous crosswalks or speeding cars. But it focuses on the negative. In the multiple choice questions, there are a lot of reasons you can pick for why the walk was not good (including scary dogs and scary people), but no reasons for why it was good (friendly dogs, friendly people, pretty gardens, …).

There’s a very complete survey called the Neighborhood Environment Walkability Survey or NEWS, developed by a professor in San Diego. According to its description, “NEWS is a 98-question instrument that assesses the perception of neighborhood design features related to physical activity, including residential density, land use mix (including both indices of proximity and accessibility), street connectivity, infrastructure for walking/cycling, neighborhood aesthetics, traffic and crime safety, and neighborhood satisfaction.” It can be used to correlate these various characteristics of neighborhoods with the amount of walking people do.

In contrast to this time-consuming survey, Walk Score is an on-line tool that you can use simply by putting in an address. It attempts to quantify some of the important criteria remotely, using public sources like maps and census data. It looks at the distance to amenities and gives maximum points to something that is a five minute walk or less, but no points to something that’s more than 30 minutes away. It also considers intersection density and block length, which are measures of connectivity. Walk Score is bound to be less accurate than on-the-ground assessments, but it gives a rough idea and is especially popular with realtors. It’s easy to use and fun to compare different neighborhoods. It also breaks down the score into components. You might do well on proximity to destinations but badly on quality of the sidewalks, for example. It allows users to make corrections to it as well.

The lengths of blocks is an important element of walkability that is considered in Walk Score. Most experts say blocks should be no more than 400 feet long in order to make walking attractive. If blocks are too long, people are discouraged from walking or else they will take short cuts.

Those short cuts can tell you a lot about the pedestrian friendliness of an area. Some towns provide paths to make connections that are not available on the streets. But when those are not available, people frequently create their own paths. Called “desire lines,” these worn paths  are an indication of inadequate pedestrian infrastructure.

The following maps show the town of Middlebury, VT (pop. about 8,600). The first map shows the street system, and the second includes the pedestrian paths. Some of those paths are maintained by the town or by private property owners (called “official” on the map) and some are unofficial desire lines. The very dense network of paths on the college campus is not included. Note the shortcuts across the railroad tracks, and the ones connecting the college campus to nearby neighborhoods where many employees live. One 860-foot long block in the center of town has two paths across it, effectively breaking it up into segments about 300 ft. long, just as one would predict.

 

An official path
An unofficial path

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now we will take a neighborhood near the elementary school and shopping district, and see if the pedestrian paths bring the connectivity index up to the desired 1.4.

Connectivity Index: Middlebury Example

The following maps show a neighborhood of Middlebury VT called Buttolph Acres. It contains single family homes and a few condo complexes, an elementary school, a courthouse, a church, a social service agency, and businesses along the major roads to the west and northwest. There’s a large park to the east.

The first map shows the streets only. The second map shows the streets and the paths.

                        

 

In the street system: 44 links/35 nodes =  a connectivity index of 1.26.

In the system of streets plus paths: 63 links/44 nodes = a connectivity index of 1.43.

Yes! The paths, both official and unofficial, bring the connectivity index up above 1.4.

These two small examples in Middlebury support the connectivity index and block length metrics, based on where people actually walk.  Wouldn’t it be nice to build these characteristics into new developments in the first place?

Landscapes of Privacy

I have always lived either in small towns or in the pre-WWII parts of larger cities where the streets are connected and anyone can walk or drive past your home. Last March we visited friends and relatives in Florida and I got an outsider’s look at two types of development that are very much a part of American life, although not of mine.

#1, High rises near Miami. Here you live surrounded by hundreds of people, yet you feel alone. After you drive through the gatehouse and enter the lobby, greeting 2 employees, you go up the elevator to your private space. The balcony is next to, above and below other balconies, but you perceive nothing of them. It is quiet and you can watch the boats on the intercoastal waterway from above. As in most apartment buildings, it is rare to meet someone in the hall or the elevator. Dogs are not allowed to walk in the halls, so when our hosts’ son brought his dog over, he had to push it in a cart! One strange thing about the neighborhood is that the more expensive building next door, probably 20 stories high, only has a few lights on at night. Apparently the owners of most of the units only use them during vacations, or they are speculators. The same is true of the mansions on the other side of the intercoastal, each with a pristine pool. They are rarely occupied. Some may be owned by companies that use them for parties.

#2, Gated community in West Palm Beach. This place is like living in a country club. The golf course and waterways surround you wherever you go. There is a club house with dining rooms, and a fitness center with tennis, weight room and multiple pools. Everything is landscaped and manicured to the ultimate degree. Only residents and guests are allowed in. The houses and tree-lined streets are very nice, and heaven forbid if you have a truck in your driveway or put your trash out the day before the pickup. (Association rules are strict, and any hint of “white trash” is clearly outlawed.). Our host remarked that it is kind of like living in an ancient walled city, but they love their courtyard house.

These are landscapes of privacy. They are landscapes of exclusivity. Are they also landscapes of fear? Who would come in if you didn’t have the gates? What would people do if you didn’t have the rules?

Natural Selection for Corporations

We are living in a world in which natural selection is operating on corporations. They are being pressed to become more and more efficient. And they do that by hiring cheaper foreign workers or automating the jobs. These trends are good for the corporations, but they’re not good for us. We humans create corporations, then we watch helplessly as they take away our jobs and livelihoods. An inexorable process leads corporations to evolve and leave us behind.

Market Failure – or – why the free market doesn’t do everything (Part 3)

COLLECTIVE GOODS

Some collective goods are things that a large number of people can use without using them up, such as radio waves or light houses.  Other types of collective goods are those that can’t be privately owned, like air, water and migratory wildlife. Collective goods are particularly susceptible to market failure. The classic example is the “tragedy of the commons.” A commons is a common pasture where everyone is allowed to graze their livestock without limit. This pasture will produce the most forage when the number of animals is optimum. But each farmer sees an advantage in adding one more animal, then one more and one more. The pasture gets overgrazed, then everyone suffers the consequences. Fisheries undergo this situation time after time. Each fisherman naturally wants to catch as many fish as possible, but when they do, the fish stocks decline, sometimes to the point of disappearance.

Free Riders

People can voluntarily pay for collective goods, like public radio and TV, but there will always be people who use them without paying. These are called “free riders.”  Pure self-interest would make everyone want to be a free rider, but then of course the service would not be funded. It is easy to be a free rider on the internet, reading articles from one publication or another without actually subscribing. On-line publications are still trying to figure out how to get users to pay.

Free Services

In previous centuries, many services that are now part of the marketplace were performed at home and no one had to pay for them with money. Families grew and cooked their own food, made their own clothing and bedding, taught their children and cared for the sick and elderly. Some families built their own houses and barns and provided their own transportation by keeping horses, mules or oxen. Over the years, manufacturing moved out of the home, textiles being a good example. Women no longer have to spend time spinning, weaving, knitting socks, making quilts and sewing clothes. Food is now making the same transition, as many young people no longer cook and restaurants and take-out food continue to proliferate. Education has been moved to schools, health care to hospitals. There are still some free services that many families provide for themselves, particularly child care and elder care. It becomes harder and harder for society to find a way to pay for these services when people want to transfer them to the market economy. Parents find that they have to spend nearly an entire salary to pay for child care; meanwhile child care providers are underpaid. And elder care can use up a family’s life savings, leaving nothing to pass on to heirs. When we try to monetize them, we realize that the value of the free services that families have been providing is staggering.

Ecological services are another vast array of non-market functions, only these are provided by the environment. For example, a forest on a hillside does a lot of good. The roots of the trees and the mosses on the ground absorb water and let it soak in or evaporate slowly. If you have ever seen mist rising from a forest during and after a rain storm, you can see this. You might also notice that streams coming from an intact forest run clean when it rains, whereas streams in urban or agricultural areas are muddy. The tree roots hold the soil so it does not erode and cause landslides. Because of the hillside forest, groundwater is recharged and flooding is reduced. Streams coming from forests are also more stable in their flow, providing water consistently. Streams in denuded areas are flashy and then dry up after the rain stops.

But there is no incentive for the owners of hillside forests to leave them intact. The ecological services they provide give the owner no income. We constantly hear about deadly landslides in one country or another, then a few days later some media outlet will report that there had been deforestation (almost as an afterthought). Centuries have gone by without anyone devising a good solution. Authors in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome wrote about how deforestation led to landslides, droughts, and the silting up of harbors. Wangari Matthai, the Kenyan Nobel laureate who championed forest preservation until her death in 2011, was still at it. She exhorted that “the mountains should be clothed in their dress.” But as long as money continues to be the sole motivation for action, the logging continues.

When Demand Reduces Supply

When a product is in high demand, the price goes up and the supply increases; so the law of supply and demand would like us to believe. But when the product is a wild plant or animal, the pressure caused by high prices can deplete the population. First the supply may go up because more people hunt or catch or collect the product. But eventually the population crashes. Rhinos are an example. They are in danger because their horn is popular for folk medicines, especially in China. The more scarce rhinos become, the higher the price poachers can gain from selling their horn; consequently, the rate of poaching increases. Like most large animals (whales, elephants, etc. ) rhinos reproduce slowly, and the race to obtain their horn may only end when there are no more rhinos.

Society can adapt to the depletion of natural resources. We use petroleum instead of whale oil, plastic instead of elephant ivory — and fake rhino horn is common in Chinese markets.  But the natural world is left poorer.

Market Failure – or – why the free market doesn’t do everything (Part 2)

 

EXTERNALITIES

Externalities are effects that are external to the marketplace’s supply and demand cycle. Let’s say you make steel and I buy it. The price of the steel is determined by how much it costs you to make it, how much profit you want, and how much I am willing to pay. There are third parties in the mix though: the people near the steel mill who have to breathe the sooty, rotten-egg-smelling air. Since they are not buying nor selling the steel, the marketplace ignores them; there is no way to put them in the equation of supply and demand. The health and environmental effects of steelmaking are a cost of production, but they are borne by someone other than the mill owners. They are external costs.

Externalities can be positive too. If you have beautiful flower garden that I can see from my window, that benefits me. If I walk past a historic building every day and appreciate the tile work, that sight may give me more pleasure than the coffee I’m drinking on the way, even though I may not even know who owns the building. The garden and the building have external benefits. The problem with external benefits is that they usually aren’t monetized. You make no money from the garden, but I will mourn if you pave it over. I pay for the coffee; I don’t pay for the beauty.

Market Failure – or – why the free market doesn’t do everything (Part 1)

The free market is unmatched in its ability to allocate goods and services. No government has to tell it how many tee shirts to produce and in what colors; how many refrigerators, or what kinds of Christmas toys. The free market works through creative destruction: if someone starts a company that is well-managed and produces what customers want, that company will prosper. If it doesn’t, it will go out of business. As a result, we have an endless supply of goods and services to choose from, and even “unpleasant” jobs are taken care of: we can hire someone to clean a septic tank or unclog a drain. The system gives us jobs and money, and with that money we can start new businesses and bring new ideas to market. What more could we want?

We could want a lot of things that are not part of the marketplace because they can’t be bought and sold. This is where free market purists go wrong. The marketplace is only a small part of the whole of life. It can affect the rest of life in positive or negative ways, or maybe not at all, leaving some needs unmet. When the negative effects are bad enough, people demand that they be controlled. Let’s look at a few examples.

 

FREEDOM. The free market sees no difference between owning machinery, animals, or humans as means of production. Slavery and serfdom were common throughout history and still exist in many places today. But we in America believe that every human has a God-given right to freedom.
MORALITY. The free market will produce pornography, and lots of it, because that’s where the money is. Most people agree that porn is bad for kids and too much of it can degrade a society. A similar situation exists with drugs. A good way to make money is to get people addicted to drugs and then continue to sell them drugs, since they will do anything to maintain their habit. The truth is that the free market is totally amoral. Goods and services simply go where the money is regardless of the impact on society.

AIR, WATER, WILDLIFE. These are called common property resources because they move across property boundaries. In an unregulated situation you don’t have to pay to take water out of a stream or well, and you don’t have to pay to put pollution into it. Naturally, then, people will deplete and pollute water supplies. The costs are borne by those who want to use the water and can’t because it’s unusable. Some people get the benefits, different people pay the costs. So we need to prevent pollution with regulations. Similar situations exist with air quality, wildlife and other resources. Hunters know that hunting seasons and bag limits are essential to maintaining a sustainable game population; otherwise the game would be overhunted and disappear.

QUALITY OF LIFE. Quality of life is like a common property resource too. The way our neighborhoods look, smell, and feel, and how safe they are, all these things are a by-product of the actions of individuals and companies. Sometimes the quality of life is enhanced by cheerful shop windows and outdoor cafes. Sometimes it is degraded by noise, garish signs, traffic etc.

Let’s say we live in a libertarian society where everyone dumps their garbage into the streets. The streets then look and smell terrible, but no one sees a way to make money cleaning it up, so no one does. If some people hire garbage haulers to remove their trash but the rest of the people continue dumping, not much will change. That’s when a government of sorts will start to form. A majority of the people can vote to force the rest to pay for garbage pick-up , or levy fines on those who don’t dispose of their own trash properly. A libertarian society probably wouldn’t last too long.

The old adage, “The best things in life are free” can go in one ear and out the other. But when thinking about non-market values, it becomes clear. Some of the things you can’t buy are the things you want most.