Major cities all over the country are attempting to make their environments more walkable. Big urban environments like New York City and San Francisco have always been walkable, but other metropolitan areas have needed some work in recent years. Now, more cities are investing in assets like sidewalks and smarter city planning to encourage more people to walk-and walk safer, with greater protections for pedestrian accidents.
What Is a Walkable City?
There are a few different dimensions that qualify a city as “walkable,” and it functions on a spectrum, rather than cities being either walkable or not walkable. These are some of the most important factors:
- Street connectivity and layout. First, you have to consider the way the streets connect with each other and how they’re laid out. If your streets are long and winding and if they never intersect, it’s hard for someone to navigate those streets on foot, or conveniently get to where they need to go. Lots of intersections, with clear naming conventions, make a city much more walkable.
- Sidewalk availability. Walkable cities are also determined, in part, by the presence and condition of sidewalks. This is one of the more obvious changes a city can make to encourage more pedestrian traffic: investing in better-quality paths.
- Trees and plant life. Though not strictly necessary for a path to be walkable, people are generally more likely to walk in a given area if there are trees, flowers, and other forms of plant life around. These features make the walk much more pleasant, and if they’re strategically placed, could provide more safety to pedestrians (such as trees standing between them and the road).
- Building frequency and variety. People are much more likely to walk in a city that has lots of buildings per square mile, and lots of different types of buildings. This encourages a greater variety of people, and allows them to run multiple errands at once.
- Entrances accessible on foot. Along the same lines, walkable cities tend to have more entrances to buildings that are easily accessible on foot.
- Transparency and visibility. People need to be able to see where they’re going, and preview stores before walking into them. High-visibility areas, and areas where storefronts have lots of big, open windows are definitely more walkable.
- Ease of transport. Some areas present specific walking challenges, but there are always ways to compensate for them; for example, convenient raised walkways could help pedestrians safely cross an otherwise high-traffic road.
Why the Trend Started
How did this trend manifest? It’s hard to say for sure, but these are some of the primary motivations:
- Reactions against suburbanization. The trend emerged at least partially as a reaction against the suburbanization that began in the 1950s and extended through the 1990s and 2000s. Suburbanization pressured workers to move to the outskirts of the city and surrounding areas, rather than living in urban centers. The addition of highways made it easier to purchase a car and commute than to rely on public transportation and walking. Accordingly, cars packed the streets, resulting in traffic and congestion, and urban centers began to look more attractive. The push for walkable cities could be a rejection of this trend.
- Technology for urban living. There’s more technology available than ever to make urban living easier. Anyone with a smartphone has the power to study a public transportation route, or order a ridesharing service if they get stuck somewhere or need to get home fast. This makes walking more attractive and easier to navigate for the majority of the population.
- Environmental concerns. Of course, there’s also an increasing concern over climate change and the health of the environment. Cars and other vehicles produce harmful greenhouse gases, negatively impacting the environment and facilitating climate change. Residents and politicians are therefore pushing for more sustainable travel options, including walking, which produce a much lower level of emissions.
- Positive press. Many media outlets have attempted to publish updated lists of the most walkable cities in the world, giving tourists more of a reason to visit and giving potential emigrants a reason to move there. Getting your city named as one of the most walkable in a given area carries enormous benefits, and as more cities get this distinction, it becomes even more attractive to cities that don’t yet have it.
Why the Trend Should Continue
Walkable cities are good for practically everyone. People have more opportunities to travel cheaply and sustainably, the environment suffers from fewer harmful emissions, and even people who are committed to driving everywhere will get the benefit of fewer cars clogging up the roads.
Hopefully, this trend will continue for the next several decades, and in time, every major city in the world will rate highly in terms of walkability.