Deep Walkability

(This piece originally appeared on

Walkability is clearly critical to bright green cities. You can’t advocate for car-free or car-sharing lives if people need cars to get around, and the enticement to walk is key to making density wonderful, to providing realistic transit options, to making smaller greener homes compelling and to growing the kind of digitally-suffused walksheds that post-ownership ideas seem to demand. So knowing how to define “walkable” is important.

That said, I’m skeptical of most measurements of walkability. Though I’m a fan of efforts like WalkScore, I think it’s important to acknowledge their very real limitations. WalkScore, for instance, is a measurement not of walkability but proximity. If we’re going to make decisions based on algorithms, we’d better make sure we’re using the right formula.

The big thing I think falls out of most walkability formulas is a quality critical to the actual experience of walkability, and that’s the extent to which the place in which you live is connected (by walking routes and easy transit) to other places worth walking to.

Unfortunately, in North America many great neighborhoods are islands of comparative pedestrian friendliness in seas of sprawl and pedestrian hostility. They may offer a lot of services close by — you may be able to walk to buy a quart of milk or drink a cup of coffee in the cafe — but going anywhere else involves a choice of long walks through forbidding surroundings and along dangerous streets or unhappy waits for inconvenient and underfunded transit.

To live in such a neighborhood is to understand the full impact of a half century of planning and public investment that treated a person walking as at best an afterthought, and very often as an inconvenience to cars that ought to be discouraged. No matter how great the cafes, sidewalks and street trees are in these ‘hoods, they are not actually truly walkable because unless you want to feel like a prisoner trapped within their boundaries, you still must own a car.

The true test of walkability I think is this: Can you spend a pleasant half hour walking or on transit and end up at a variety of great places? The quality of having a feast of options available when you walk out your front door is what I’m starting to think of as “deep walkability.”

It’s this deep walkability that ought to be the top priority driving urban design and development in our communities. We ought to be looking at how to knit our walkable communities together and how to make friendlier the unwalkable streets between them.

In most cities, serious walkers (and bikers) share stories about the routes they’ve taken, hidden paths through the fractured landscape that let you walk safely and happily from one people-centered place to another. A killer urban ap would be one that revealed these urban songlines. A smart urban policy would be one that aimed to weave new walking routes through the whole urban fabric, until places walkers feared to tread were the exception rather than the expectation.

Basically, that would mean redevelopment and curative street design, which in turn often means making a conscious choice to slow down car traffic, to convert road lanes to train rails or bike trails, and to disincentivize parking and auto-oriented development in favor of sidewalk-focused density and transit-oriented development.

I think we need to recognize that the idea we can “balance” cars and sidewalk life is a dangerous illusion. The only way to make pedestrians and bikers safe and welcome is to slow cars down, to make it clear that the place through which they’re driving is one in which they need to pay attention, and, whenever possible, to get those cars off the streets and out of way of trains, bus, bikes and strollers.

Assert the primacy of people enjoying the act of walking, and density begins to become community, transit begins to become an essential amenity rather than a safety net, and life begins to orient around experiences and access rather than accumulation and convenience. The act of walking is, I think more and more, at the very foundation of every other bright green possibility.

A place that embraces deep walkability could almost be considered the very definition of a great city.