We Need a Better Word Than 'Walkable'

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Does this street look walkable? Or crowded?. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

Walkability is clearly defined by the nonprofit 8-80 Cities:

Simply put, a walkable community is one where residents can reach a wide range of amenities — grocery stores, doctor's offices, restaurants, drug stores, parks and schools, safely and easily by foot.

This has been understood for many years, and is measured by Walkscore, the algorithm that measures the number of restaurants and drug stores around an address. But the next part of 8-80's definition is not so well understood or measured:

It is also, importantly, a place where the built environment — the collection of streets and buildings and public spaces that make up the city’s landscape — encourages them to do so.

This is where many of our cities fail, particularly for the old, the young, and those with disabilities. Some cities seem, in fact, to make walking as difficult as possible, and discouraging those with walkers or wheelchairs.

An example from where I live

walkscore toronto
It's hard to beat a Walkscore this high; everything is reachable. (Photo: Walkscore)

Let's look at this this stretch of a popular street in Toronto near where I live; it has everything going for it when it comes to Walkscore: shopping, restaurants, you name it. You can get anything here, so it earns a Walkscore of 98.

Bloor Street in Toronto
But here's the reality— not so walkable after all. (Photo: Lloyd Alter)

But if you look at the actual sidewalk, it's almost impassible on a nice day. The big raised planters take up half the sidewalk, and then retailers and restaurants take up even more space with tent signs, seating and more. Even the wonderful wheelchair ramps from the charity Stopgap, which make stores accessible for wheelchair users, become a trip hazard for anyone walking. On a sunny day, this street is not comfortably walkable for anyone, but it's downright impossible for anyone with a walker or a wheelchair.

It seems that unless you're young and fit and have perfect vision and aren't pushing a stroller or walking with a child, many streets in our cities aren't walkable at all — even the streets that earn a Walkscore of 98.

In his wonderful new book "Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places," Jeff Speck's Rule 4 is "Sell Walkability on Equity." In an excerpt from the book in Greater Greater Washington, he notes:

Walkability improvements disproportionately help the differently abled. Most visually impaired people can move independently only while walking, and they are effectively disabled by communities that mandate cars for getting around. And every investment in walkability is also an investment in rollability; wheelchair users are among those who benefit most when sidewalks become safer.
  • Rollability. Walkability isn't enough anymore. Or–
  • Strollerability, for people with kids. Or–
  • Walkerability, for older people pushing walkers. Or
  • Seeability, for the vision impaired. Our sidewalks have to do all of this. And we can't forget
  • Seatabilityplaces to sit down and rest, or
  • Toiletabilityplaces to go to the bathroom. All of these contribute to making a city useable for everyone.
  • We obviously need a broader term for this

    We need a new word, something like activemobility or activeability, that covers all the ways people get around on sidewalks, and what other facilities they need to succeed at it. (I'm open to suggestions for a better word.)

    Frances Ryan wrote a wonderful article in The Guardian where she turned the idea of disability on its head, noting that she would be perfectly fine getting around if the proper infrastructure was in place. The problem isn't her; it's the city she lives in.

    We are not simply disabled by our bodies but by the way society is organised. It isn’t my use of a wheelchair that makes my life disabled, it’s the fact not all buildings have a ramp.

    She goes on to complain about the lack of accessible washrooms, and how "both male and female readers have told me they routinely use 'adult nappies' on long journeys, despite not being incontinent, because stations don’t have facilities. The alternative is to never travel."

    As 75 million baby boomers get old, they're going to be increasingly disabled by deteriorating vision, hearing and mobility issues. They aren't going to put up with never traveling, and they're going to be the people with the money to support the restaurants and stores and the hotels.

    The time to start fixing our streets and our infrastructure to accommodate them is now.