Why walkable cities are a step ahead

Friday, December 7, 2012

A move to make urban centres more pedestrian friendly leads to economic benefits

Special to The Globe and Mail

In Canada and around the world, urban planners are finding out that if you want your city to run, first you have to walk.

Walkability, often a neglected afterthought in planning, is back, and in cities around the world making life easier for pedestrians is becoming a priority.

Or a necessity. The walkable city is where ergonomics meets economics. Cities are building or adding pedestrian malls, wider sidewalks, underground passageways, overpasses and scramble intersections (where the pedestrians cross in all directions while the cars have to wait).

The benefits include higher real estate values, fewer health care costs, less smog and even a more robust local economy. Glenn Miller, vice-president of education and research for the Canadian Urban Institute, cites a study where a street in Brighton, England, was made more pedestrian friendly. "They looked at retail performance and the street showed huge improvements in revenue."

Some cities look to augment their pedestrian-friendly planning with technology - for example, Hong Kong with its 1.4-kilometre Peak Tram funicular, or a proposed (though now stalled) plan for a gondola at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C., that people could walk to and reduce commuting time to six minutes from 17 minutes.

But the most cost-effective ways to keep cities moving are the simplest, says Brent Toderian, former chief planner for Vancouver and now head of Toderian Urban Works.

"The strongest arguments for making a city more walkable are financial. On a dollars and cents basis it's the cheapest way to move people around. Even transit trips start and end with your feet," he says.

Planning neighbourhoods and business districts to be more pedestrian-friendly might be the only way for cities to escape financial ruin.

Traffic congestion cost the Greater Toronto Area an astounding $3.3-billion in lost productivity in 2009, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development; in the Chicago area, the tab is $8.2-billion annually.

People, particularly youth, are actually giving up their cars and losing interest in driving. In Japan it's called "demotorization" - the status of having a car is being replaced with cachet from having the latest smartphone or computer, which you can carry as you walk.

In the United States, a study by the University of Michigan found that the percentage of 19-year-olds with drivers' licences dropped by 17 per cent from 1983 to 2010, and keeps going down. Similar downward trends are showing up in Europe and Australia.

The property market is responding. Witness the condo boom in Toronto and Vancouver and the corresponding move of major companies such as Telus and Google from suburban spaces to downtown sites.

It's also leading to design changes that reverse planning assumptions dating to the 1960s.

"We're seeing something interesting - a huge shift in the real estate market both in commercial and residential building, toward a major reorientation to more walkable spaces," says architect and planner Ken Greenberg, head of Toronto-based Greenberg Consultants.

"We're seeing it in commercial development, by people in the business of building office buildings, or science buildings, labs or anything involved in the new economy," Mr. Greenberg says.

"We had several decades where people were going out to cheap spaces by the highway. Now they look to build where there is a mix of things that people can do when they walk out of their office space."

It's not just happening in downtown cores, Mr. Greenberg says. He was part of a group of experts hired to help Mississauga make its recently built and still growing city centre more pedestrian friendly.

"We're seeing this trend happening in suburban locations. At sites on the highway, people building suburban sectors are trying to replicate downtown walking spaces," he says.

Shifting our cities from car culture to foot traffic requires thinking differently, Mr. Toderian says. "The key to walkability is getting the right density, design and mix."

The density consideration is the opposite of how you plan for cars, where the object is to separate the vehicles and leave as much room as possible. "Cars don't like other cars, but walkers like more walkers," Mr. Toderian says.

This means that it's okay, sometimes even desirable, to plan a city-walking route that will be crowded.

People will gravitate toward the same routes time and again, Mr. Miller of the Canadian Urban Institute says.

"The more a route gets used, the more it becomes a pedestrian pathway. You see it all the time, places where people wear away the grass."

In captive routes such as those at airports, there's a limit to how far people are willing to walk, which is why moving pathways are installed. But contrary to what many people think, distance is not the strongest factor for city pedestrians.

"The truth is that it has to do with the quality of the design," Mr. Toderian says. "People will walk longer if it's a pleasant environment and they won't walk at all if it's harsh or unsafe."

Good designs give walkers interesting things to see - store windows, ads, street vendors, flowers and trees. Bad designs are blank walls or repetitive architecture, Mr. Miller says. "People don't want to walk where there's nothing to look at."

Mix, the third consideration, has to do with the variety of buildings and their purposes, Mr. Toderian says. Put peoples' homes near work, shopping and schools, and you'll find they walk more. It's the power of nearness."



Fourth of a five-part series looking at developments in the movement of people and goods in the era of rapid globalization.

On Tuesday: Miners on the move.