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?


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.