To Make a Walkable City, Start With Babies

A new report, "Pedestrians First," has a new way of looking at walkability.

Edie can't get through
Edie can't get through this construction.

 Emma Alter

The Institute for Transportation & Development Policy (ITDP) has a new report out measuring walkability. It's interactive, letting readers use tools to explore or analyze a city in detail, based on their Transit-Oriented Development Standard that we have covered on Treehugger previously.

Pedestrian first standard

The tools are interesting and useful; you can explore your city's walkability using five indicators. You can measure the inclusivity of public transit, examine neighborhoods, and rate streets. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the report is that it uses babies as the indicator species for walkability.

Cities For Babies Are Cities For All

Edie can barely get through
Edie can barely get through.  Emma Alter
"Walkability is good for people in many ways. It is particularly beneficial for equity, resilience, the environment, public health, the economy, and social connection. In general, walkability benefits babies and toddlers in the same ways that it benefits everyone else, but babies and toddlers feel the effects more strongly. That is why, when we design walkable cities with babies and toddlers in mind, we are designing walkable cities for everyone else, too."

Many urbanists have bought into Gil Penalosa's concept of 8 80 cities, where "if everything we do in our cities is great for an 8-year-old and an 80-year-old, then it will be great for all people." The ITDP takes a different view: why start at 8? If it works for the babies it will work for everyone. They have a point.

"Babies and toddlers are not the only people in cities who are sensitive to unhealthy environments. Toddlers need extra time to cross streets, but so do the elderly and those with physical impairments. Street trees and public art are good both for a baby’s neurological development and for an adult’s mental health and sense of community. By building neighborhoods where daily needs are within a short walk, everyone, not just caregivers and children, will benefit from spending less time and money traveling. Cities should be walkable so that everyone, even the youngest children, can safely enjoy them."
Edie going for a walk
Edie going for a walk.  Emma Alter

Having a one-year-old granddaughter has made me acutely aware of this issue. One quickly starts noticing speeding cars, noise, air pollution, all of those things that make it difficult or unsafe to walk with the baby or push her stroller. As the ITDP notes, "babies and toddlers are especially sensitive to the harmful impacts of car-centric mobility systems." Access to parks becomes an important part of peoples' lives when they have a baby or toddler.

Babies also need good wide sidewalks with smooth concrete. Jeff Speck discussed this in his recent book "Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places," writing that "Every investment in walkability is also an investment in rollability; wheelchair users are among those who benefit most when sidewalks become safer." And, of course, Strollerability, for people with kids.

Bloor Street in Toronto
Not much room for strollers here. Lloyd Alter

Even some of the best walking streets fail in this regard. This popular stretch in Toronto (shown above) has all the amenities you could possibly want, but if you run it through the Visit a Street tool, it fails miserably because there simply isn't enough room for the number of people to get between the planters and the seating and the tent displays and the bicycles and even the wonderful wheelchair ramps from Stopgap. It has a Walkscore of 98, but you can barely push a stroller through it. The ITDP recommends a minimum clear, unobstructed width of 2.5 meters (8'4") for commercial areas; there is less than half that here.

The ITDP has done something really interesting here. They are always looking for ways to promote the idea of walkability, but Transit-Oriented Development as a concept doesn't grab you emotionally. Last year's campaign based on e-bikes and e-scooters felt a bit gimmicky at times.

But almost everyone gets babies at an emotional level. Everyone was a kid once. And their key insight, that "when our streets and neighborhoods are safe, comfortable, and useful for babies, toddlers, and their caregivers, they are more likely to be safe, comfortable, and useful for everyone" can be understood by anyone.

Edie and Neil
Edie and Neil.  Emma Alter

Read more and rate your street or neighborhood at Pedestrians First. And thanks to Edie and Neil for being such good models.