Monday, December 3, 2012

Walkable City

Jeff Speck recent work is a book on "Walkable City". Jeff is a city planner and architectural designer.

Kaid Benfield just published an article online reviewing Speck's book. While I agree with them for the most part, I would like to give a heads up to city planners and decision makers that they should not rush into making their cities walkable by cutting space from vehicles and giving it to peds and bikes. The menu-type list that Speck and Benfield have provided, need to be implemented in real world simultaneously and in long-term to be effective. A wonderful transit service in the middle of an inhabitant dessert is as bad as encouraging people to bike from 50-miles away suburbs to downtown to work in winter. We need to remind ourselves that the travel choice that we make everyday is sometimes a result of some of our own habits and in some cases a collective effect of problematic habits of the entire society. In other saying, I would probably bike to work when I see most of my fellows bike. Other than that, our choice of where to live and where to work, availability of good schools for kids, safe neighborhoods, and many other factors affect our choices of travel and residency.

What I would disagree is that "Traffic studies are bullshit." First of all, traffic doesn't mean just vehicular traffic. In fact, traffic is multi-modal. Second, saying "put cars in their place" give the wrong impression that cars are bad. In opposite, I would say cars are good because they give us the mobility that we want in a world (I mean mostly cities in the U.S.) where we have no other choice for the most time. How am I supposed to go shopping when the only store close to where I live is 10 miles away and is a big box? How am I supposed to go to work when my office is in downtown and my house is in a suburb? The point that I am trying to make is the higher importance of mixed-use development at this stage. The listed items in the Speck and Benfield's recipes need to be weighted differently and ordered depending on the current state of our cities. What city planners and policy makers need to know is that before calling off all the traffic studies, shutting down freeway lanes, and hiking up parking fees, they need to change the design of our cities and make sure that other options than just driving are available and not just available but desirable too. Then by making driving more expensive (or better to say less desirable, because it's not just about money, it's also habit and culture), people would choose to take transit, to walk or to bike.

Just to give you some interesting numbers: the population density in Amsterdam (within city limits) is about 3,745 people per sq km while the population density in Chicago (within city limits) is about 4,466 people/ sq km. What? Chicago has a higher population density? How come we do not bike as much as Dutch? Well, because other factors are in effect not just population density. Let's just imagine, we move all the residents of Amsterdam to Chicago and take Chicagoans to Amsterdam for a year. What would happen to travel patterns in those cities? I doubt that if it remains the same. So, it's not just the design or infrastructure or land-use, its also habits, inertia, and culture.

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