Terms, mind-sets must be changed to encourage and enable more walking in cities

By Roger K. Lewis
Saturday, May 8, 2010; E05

The time has come to acknowledge that walking will be an indispensable component of 21st-century transportation. Today's plans for urban and suburban growth envision walkways as a vital part of multi-modal transportation networks. Walking is great exercise and beneficial to health. Unlike cars, buses, trams and trains, walking consumes no fossil-fuel energy and leaves no carbon footprint. Equally important, walking can be a positive aesthetic experience.

The term "transit-oriented development" (TOD) paints an incomplete picture of state-of-the-art planning and urban design. The terminology should change, along with our mind-set. We should talk about and advocate multi-modal-transportation-oriented development.

Changing attitudes about walking will be difficult in the face of America's long love affair with the automobile. Our addiction to driving and relatively cheap gasoline is powerful. And we have planned, zoned and built our metropolitan areas to facilitate vehicular travel while discouraging and often impeding pedestrian travel. Worse for pedestrians, many urban and suburban streets are unsafe and unsightly. Even if you are willing to walk a few blocks, the visual environment might be an aesthetic disincentive.

How can we encourage and enable more walking? What will motivate people to change long-standing perceptions and deeply engrained behavior? We must plan and develop -- or redevelop -- metropolitan environments so walking becomes safe, comfortable, enjoyable and stimulating. This requires satisfying several design criteria:

-- Street patterns must be easily navigable and latticelike, with blocks that are not too big and intersections that are not too far apart. Streets must be continuous and interconnected, providing motorists and pedestrians with more than one path for traveling to a destination.

-- Public streets must be artfully proportioned. Widths of sidewalks, planting strips, cart ways and medians are critical, as are the heights and setbacks of buildings flanking streets. Well-configured street spaces balance a sense of architectural definition and enclosure with desirable exposure to sky, sunlight, air movement and views.

-- To make walking truly pleasurable, streetscape quality and amenity are important. A thoughtful mix of shade trees and vegetation beautifies streetscapes and makes them ecologically greener. Good lighting and signage, convenient street furniture and attractive paving materials enhance a streetscape experience visually and functionally.

-- It must be safe to walk, day or night. In addition to good lighting and durable walkway paving that doesn't trap high heels, streets need well-marked crosswalks and synchronized traffic-control signals. Police or other public safety officials should be seen regularly patrolling streets.

-- Buildings facing public streets need lots of windows, entrance doorways and storefronts. These benefit merchants looking for customers and pedestrians looking for merchandise. Because there is safety in numbers, streets lined by eateries with outdoor seating are even safer, not to mention livelier. People will walk along such streets because walking is delightful.

Look at cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco, London, Paris and Barcelona. These cities have beautiful streets that encourage walking. Commuters in these cities happily walk 15 or 20 minutes from a subway or rail station, or from a parking garage, to their home, workplace or school. They don't hesitate to walk a half-mile to visit their favorite shop, cafe or friend.

In addition to changing terminology, we need to modify a pervasive American planning standard: the dogma of the one-quarter-mile walking radius. If you look at development plans, you'll see circles drawn around transportation nodes to show the presumed limits of how far Americans are willing to walk. The Washington Post reported recently that some Tysons Corner property owners have complained that, because of assumed walking distance standards symbolized by such circles, planned TOD density allocations around Tysons' four new Metro stations don't extend far enough. Their complaints might be justified.

A quarter-mile is 1,320 feet, walkable in about five to six minutes. That's twice the length of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, or the length of the Constitution Avenue frontage occupied by the east and west buildings of the National Gallery of Art. It's really not very far. If walking is pleasurable, Americans will gladly walk more than a quarter-mile and longer than five or six minutes.

Let's get rid of those misleading quarter-mile circles that fail to reflect what so many visionary plans aspire to create: urbane, aesthetically pleasing pedestrian environments. Double or even triple the assumed walkability distances wherever attractive sidewalk experiences exist.

Instead of circles, delineate paths of sidewalk travel within street-block networks to indicate reasonable walking ranges. And make sure pedestrians have plenty to look at along the way.

Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor emeritus of architecture at the University of Maryland.

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