We Need Walkable, Wheelable, Scooterable and Strollable Cities, and What We Are Getting Is More Sprawl

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CC BY 2.0. Cities should be skatable, too/ Lloyd Alter

Fewer people are walking and more people are voting with their gas pedal.

Everybody is talking about scooters and new modes of mobility these days, but let's talk about the oldest and cheapest way to get around: walking. Alex Marshall lives in Brooklyn and wrote last summer about how he gets around on foot with his new daughter:

As for my mobility, within my usual strollable universe I have hundreds of restaurants and cafés, dozens of grocery stores, and Prospect Park, one of the best examples of urban greenery in the world. In other words, while I’m out with my baby I can shop, lunch, have a beer and stroll beside meadows, winding hills and lakes.

He notes that when cities get more dense, they get more walkable, scooterable, cyclable, but they become less drivable.

If 10,000 new apartments were built around me, the additional neighbors would support more churches, stores and clubs and thus improve my mobility, even though driving would be slower and parking harder. This same equation holds true in suburban areas. When communities oppose development because it will create more traffic, it’s important to point out that by some measures mobility will be improved because more goods and services will be within easier reach.

But it seems that almost everywhere, we are going in the other direction, and are becoming less walkable, and people are less open to alternative forms of mobility. A new article from RICS, the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors in the UK, notes that people are actually walking less than they used to.

Walking in London

Walking in London/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

The distance people walk has gone down by about a tenth over the past ten years. According to Department of Transport 2017 statistics people in England walk an average of about four miles per week, or just under 200 miles a year. But averages can be misleading: every month, four out of 10 adults aged 40 to 60 in England spend less than 10 minutes walking continuously at a brisk pace. What’s more, nearly a third of all car trips are shorter than two miles. So, there is potential for change.

They note that just a bit of walking can make a huge difference in the number heart attacks, strokes, and also can reduce depression and dementia by as much as 30 percent. That's why they promote healthy streets that encourage people to walk with good sidewalks, shade, shelter, places to stop and rest. They support streets that "reduce the dominance of vehicles on London’s streets, whether stationary or moving, be permeable by foot and cycle, and connect with local walking and cycling networks as well as public transport."

It is people on foot who make urban centres vibrant, and they support economic activity. Transport for London discovered that people who walk to town centres across London spend more per week than those who come by bus, train, tube, bike or car. And employers are increasingly finding that to attract new staff, particularly millennials, they need to be based in vibrant, walkable areas.

Province of Ontario/Public Domain

Walkable cities and suburbs need a certain density so that one doesn't have to walk too far to get a quart of milk or find a restaurant; otherwise, people drive everywhere. That's why where I live, in Canada's province of Ontario, the government set minimum densities for new development. But the new "for the people" government just cut those densities, in some places in half.

The mayor of Barrie, a sprawly city north of Toronto is thrilled, and tells the Star: “People’s preferences need to be respected. Not everyone wants to live in a condo.” In another community an hour from Toronto, the planner concurs. "A lot of people come here because it’s lower density. It’s not Toronto. The prospect of having to become more like those areas isn’t something people want.”

But you can't always get what you want. There is a reason that densities were set so high for new development: to protect watersheds and agricultural land, and to ensure that densities were high enough so that people could get around without climbing into the SUV or pickup trucks and burning more fossil fuels to heat suburban bungalows.

Writing in the usually conservative The Hill, Steven Higshide reminds us how urban planning and density is directly connected to carbon emissions and climate change.

Federal policy can support a transportation system that supports stronger, less sprawling places, that offer more choices in how to get around. Walkable, transit-friendly neighborhoods are more cost- and carbon-efficient, and there’s substantial unmet demand for them...

Making the changes listed above would signal an end to highways-as-usual, a policy that has helped birth the climate crisis and worsened inequality in cities and suburbs. We can do better by our people and our planet.

They get this in Brooklyn, New York, but not in Brooklin, Ontario. Or in Edmonton, Alberta, or France or in much of the USA. The SUV driving populists are winning elections and rolling back walkability, transit, bike lanes. Because that is what the people apparently want.