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To Walk or Not to Walk?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how many sidewalks lead to Rome. I explained there was no secret, fool-proof recipe for creating walkable, livable places. Today, we tackle a similar myth - that some features or areas should automatically be prioritized to increase walkability. By now, you probably know our response is - it depends. The reason why we have such an "infuriatingly" nuanced approach harkens back to circa 2001...and feeds into our (seemingly oxymoronic) simultaneously data-driven and personalized solutions.

Carless in the Land of Milk and Honey

When I first started studying walkability (way before anyone knew what this word was), I spent a lot of time thinking about what it was about a neighborhood's design that made us decide to walk - or not. Ironically (or fortuitously), I was living in a pretty unwalkable place at the time (Irvine, CA) and I did not own a car. I became a careful (read, obsessive) observer of the built environment. I noted the many ways that my surroundings were designed with the car in mind and I lamented (sometimes in the form of angry gesticulations while attempting to cross a not-so safe street) the fact that pedestrians were an afterthought at best.

Where the Sidewalk (Never) Ends

But what I thought was most curious about Irvine was that there were sidewalks everywhere. Sidewalks leading up to freeway onramps. Sidewalks circling large strip malls. Sidewalks abutting tall, noise containment walls on one side and 8-lane 50 mph roads on the other. Yeah, needless to say, these sidewalks were the most pristine I'd ever seen. At the time, a number of researchers had begun to evaluate how the built environment impacted walking. Many of these studies focused on the role of sidewalks. As an avid believer that the built environment shaped our behaviors, I was worried these studies would yield misleading results - because, as I had come to learn, not all sidewalks were "created equally." And the mere presence of sidewalks didn't automatically encourage walking.

The Hierarchy of Walking Needs

So as an intrepid (naive) then second year PhD student (gulp, 14 years ago), I decided to write a theory paper on walking to argue, essentially, just that - that providing sidewalks was a necessary but not sufficient built environment feature to encourage walking. And that yes, what influenced people's decisions to walk did depend on what other urban design features were or were not present (in addition to individual differences and motivations). And guess what? It was published (way back in 2005)! And not just that, it's the little paper that could. It's been cited exponentially more than any other paper I've ever written and is still getting me "recognized" at conferences! But, since it, as most all academic papers, is behind a $32/article firewall, I'll break down the essential tenets for you here (and you can email me if you want to bask in the full-geekiness of the entire article!) 

So what matters to pedestrians and when? Here's what I argued then that still underlies that basic principles behind State of Place...

1) There are five levels of "needs" that influence walkability, four of which pertain to the built environment. As with Maslow's original Hierarchy of Needs, some built environment features matter more - or are more "fundamental" - than others, in influencing people's decisions to walk. In order of the most basic to the most higher order need, these are:

Accessibility: is there somewhere to walk and something to walk on

Safety: does the walk feel safe, with respect to crime

Comfort: does the walk feel comfortable, with respect to traffic safety

Pleasurability: is the walk interesting and/or pleasurable

       Hierarchy of Walking Needs, Alfonzo, 2005

       Hierarchy of Walking Needs, Alfonzo, 2005

(By the way, if these seem familiar, it's because they are...I'd like to think these influenced the four types of walks Jeff Speck described in his 2012 Walkable City - Useful, Safe, Comfortable, and Interesting)  

2) Basic needs must usually be satisfied first, before a higher-order need is considered in a person's decision to walk. If there are no sidewalks, the presence of street trees is less likely to get someone to decide to walk.

3) Not all needs must be satisfied for a person to decide to walk. For some people - especially those determined (or without a choice but) to walk, the presence of sidewalks are enough (even if they are only 3 feet wide and abut what essentially amounts to a freeway - like with my carless experience in Irvine).

4) At times, a "need" may be "skipped," especially if someone is constantly deprived of that need. For example, a place may not really satisfy someone's need for safety, but they may be motivated by the fact that the walk is at least comfortable. Or like in the case of Irvine, while the walk was never comfortable as a pedestrian, many of my walks were beautiful - it was Southern California after all and there were mountains everywhere (as a Miami girl, they will never get old). 

5) Two needs may be "reversed" - or the order of needs may differ - depending on the type of walk. This hierarchy applies mostly to "destination" or purposeful walking. But if someone is walking for recreation or exercise, they may just care that it is a pleasurable walk.

6) More than one set of needs may simultaneously influence the choice to walk.

7) People may or may not be consciously considering these needs - they may not actually be able to articulate what kept them from or motivated them to walk (unless they are obsessive about these things as I am!). In other words, you won't always get the "right" answer simply by asking people what they like or don't like.

8) Just because you've satisfied all of these needs doesn't mean people will automatically walk (goes back to the build it and they might come argument) as the built environment is only one part of the equation in motivating behavior. 

So if you're a city planner or developer grappling with what areas and/or features to prioritize to increase walkability, what does this mean? How can we get walkable?

Some argue that you need to start with your downtown, as that's where your biggest bang for your buck is. Full stop. But, again, we have a more nuanced approach to this. The key is in the answer to these questions:

What are your built environment assets and needs?

Which needs in the hierarchy are you already fulfilling?

How well are you fulfilling them?

How do different neighborhoods or districts in your city measure up with respect to fulfilling the hierarchy of walking needs?

Are there small additions you can make to some neighborhoods that would make a big difference, like fulfill safety needs of a neighborhood that has already met the need for accessibility? Even if that isn't your downtown?

Are there some changes you can make to encourage more "recreational" walking? In other words, maybe it's not feasible to boost accessibility in some cases - like in a purely, built-out residential area?

What is the best use of your (limited) resources?

Yes, there are a LOT of questions you must answer to fully understand how to get walkable! If someone is coming to your town and offering easy solutions for how to increase walkability, be skeptical. If they're not asking you what you want, if they're not considering your resources, if they're not taking into account what walking needs you're currently fulfilling, if they're a priori prioritizing a neighborhood or your downtown because that's what makes sense "on paper" - don't walk, RUN away! 

I hate to sound like a broken record...but walkability - this stuff is nuanced. Details matter. Formulas - they're B.S. While we may be data-geeks, the real reason we collect data on 290+ built environment features is to help answer all of the questions we laid out above - and more. Your ideal solution may differ from what worked for another place. And the ideal solution for one neighborhood in your city may be entirely different from what would work for your downtown or another neighborhood. If you're struggling to set priorities for walkability and figure out where to start or what proposal to approve, we'd love to help you increase the number of people choosing the "to walk" part of the To Walk or Not to Walk question. Chat with us anytime - seriously, my calendar is online to make this part of the solution truly a no-brainer!