It All Adds Up to Walking: Jeff Speck on Health, Safety, Economics and Sustainability

Making Austin Walkable video - An Evening with Jeff Speck

What if the design of a place leads to less obesity? Greater affordability? Reduced environmental impact? There are rating systems (such as LEED ND and STAR Communities) which recognize communities and projects addressing these goals, yet  Author, Planner and Consultant Jeff Speck addressed how many of these goals can be accomplished by ensuring that cities mature and redevelop as walkable places.

Speaking to more than 150 attendees at the Making Austin Walkable lecture on May 6, 2014, Jeff shared important health, economic and sustainability information on walkable cities. What health and safety benefits do walkable places provide?:

  • lower levels of obesity (which now effects more than 1/3 of US adults, and approximately 1/5 of US children),
  • lower levels of diabetes,
  • lower rates of high blood pressure, and
  • longer life expectancy.

The most striking statistics include vehicular mortality. Cities-which have been deemed "unsafe" for perceived and past high crime-are safer than our suburban places. Walkable places like New York City have a vehicular mortality rate 85% less than automobile dependent places like Orland (3:100,000 and 20:100,000, respectively), and are safer still than suburbs when factoring in violent crime.

Jeff had the opportunity to tour some of Austin's walkable places (the good, the great, and the ugly) and his lecture shared important economic statistics about places that are walkable. Walkable places offer great economic benefit; retailers find that customers spend significantly more over cumulative trips when they walk or bike compared to those who drive; price premiums for homes in walkable places are $4,000-$34,000 per house; and households benefit from significant annual transportation cost savings $4,370 (from reduced vehicle miles travelled) to $9,320.  Expenses from healthcare are also higher in less walkable areas; the five U.S. cities most likely to have asthma, people drive 27% more.

Not diving into the details of energy certification programs, Jeff assessed that the most energy efficient suburban household (think high-efficiency compact fluorescent lightbulbs, new appliances, Prius, etc.) still consumes more energy than an inefficient urban household. Just living without a car for one week saves more energy than using high efficiency lighting for a year. How are cities are laid out plays an important role in environmental sustainability, as US cities consume half the energy per capita as suburbs consume, and peer cities outside the US (like Vancouver and London) use even half of the energy of US' efficient cities.

Watch Jeff's 16-minute TED talk. Before leaving Austin, he left a few recommendations:

-Block and street size: Austin’s downtown blocks fare well, but, right size your blocks and streets to the pedestrian scale. Skinny streets with ample pedestrian & tree space provide a safer public space; two-lane roads can handle 10,000 cars per day, but, many roads are 4-lanes of fast-moving traffic, count the cars and count the lanes to see if you can find space!

-Create connectivity: Connectivity needs to happen through large developments, especially multifamily; minimum spacing of intersections of constructed streets assists with this.

-Capacity: Increasing capacity of transportation infrastructure isn’t successfully done by adding new lanes; within 4 years of new lane construction lanes have filled and congestion is at its previous level. You need to increase capacity by enabling other transportation options, so be sure that investment in transit is part of the conversation.

-Equity: Communities often want to distribute resources equitably, but, providing minimal improvements to all areas will not make any walkable. Instead, start small and build outward. Some streets-such as those with jails-will never be good, leave these for last so energy can be focused on improving areas that have opportunity. (recommendations continue below)

-Expectations: most unwalkable places have housing and parking over-represented, and things like office, retail, dining, entertainment, recreation and worship need to be added. Since retail and schools often are constructed 15 years after housing, be certain to plan for these uses so future residents can walk to school, work and entertainment.

- One-Way Streets: convert one-way streets to two-way; one-way streets are bad for retail and walkability

-Parking design: enable parking to be shared between uses; parking is one of the wasted land uses that oftentimes is quite valuable. Where parking garages exist, require 30’ setbacks so they can eventually have liner buildings.

-Parking pricing: make changes to your parking pricing and benefits, charging more for where people want to parkland creating parking benefits districts can help to make these areas better

Follow Jeff on Twitter @JeffSpeckAICP