Walk This Way

November 16, 2012

Architect and city planner Jeff Speck and his wife and two kids could live anywhere. So why is their house in Washington, D.C.? Their friends. And those folks are likely here for another reason that’s kept the Speck family around: the ability to use their own two feet for transportation.

Speck’s new book, “Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time,” lays out a blueprint for creating places for pedestrians. It’s a vision of an environment that’s healthier, livelier and more economically successful — and one that looks a heck of a lot like Washington.

“D.C. is one of a handful of cities getting it right,” says Speck, who’s worked on plans for 75 cities, towns and villages in his career (and is currently on projects in Memphis, Tenn.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Long Island, N.Y.).

D.C.’s success is partly because of smart choices made eons ago. A grassroots effort managed to snag us the Metrorail system rather than the 450 miles of interstate highways mapped out in a 1956 plan. A walk to the White House on election night would be pretty challenging with an oval freeway running around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“And the legacy of the height limit is the absence of what you see in most American cities: high-rises and surface parking lots,” Speck says. “Nothing is more boring than a big surface parking lot.”

City leaders deserve credit more recently, Speck says, for introducing the largest bicycle-sharing program in the country and building a network of bike lanes and cycle tracks. Those steps benefit pedestrians, too, because they slow car traffic, which reduces accidents.

Not everything about the Washington area is perfect. Although the downtown Metro stops were built with walking in mind, many suburban stops aren’t. You get off the train and wind up stuck in a parking lot.

“You should be able to fall off a stool at a cafe right into a train,” says Speck, who notes that transit works best when riders are treated as walkers on both ends of a trip.

And although he owns a car — and likes to have a place to put it — Speck has issues with the city’s parking requirements. When he and his wife built their house on an empty lot adjoining traditional row houses just north of U Street, it took nine months to get exempted from a bizarre zoning law. “On our street, not a single house has a private parking space, but I was required to build one,” he says.

There will always be people begging for more parking and more roads, Speck says, until they understand the reality of induced demand. (And he’s willing to explain it over and over until they do.)

“To the average citizen, it makes sense that adding lanes would reduce congestion,” he says. Only problem is, that’s not true. Additional lanes encourage more people to drive, until those new lanes become as congested as the old ones. “The only constraint to congestion is congestion.”

To solve D.C.’s traffic problems, “you need to tax driving at a rate that forces drivers to pay the true cost,” says Speck, who praises a program that charges drivers to enter London on weekdays.

But there’s no real need to do anything, Speck says, because anyone who’s stuck behind the wheel in D.C. has another option: Walk.

Jeff Speck will discuss his book at 6 p.m. Saturday at Politics and Prose (5015 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-364-1919, Politics-prose.com). At the free talk, be sure to ask him about how he met his wife while waiting on a MARC train platform.

Vicky Hallett is a MisFits columnist and the Fit editor for Express.
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