In Walkable City, author Jeff Speck cogently presents the reasons why walkable places are desirable and how cities caught in traffic can both calm their streets and increase their tax revenue.  By and large, American cities are designed for the automobile, a space hungry machine that has dominated city planning codes for several decades.  Moreover, American downtowns can’t transform into vital places of interest without housing, which is either prohibited or bank red-lined in many cities across the country.  Furthermore, for a city to reclaim its urban core, the real cost of parking must be realized and entrenched planning codes altered. While parking is subsidized or completely free for drivers,  the real cost is paid by everyone, drivers and non-drivers alike, through higher costs of all goods and services, not to mention the soul-destroying lifelessness of vacant city centers given over to acres of surface parking lots.

The Real Cost of Parking

According to Mr. Speck, the parking subsidy in the early 2000’s in the U.S. was estimated to range between $127 billion and $374 billion annually, placing it in the vicinity of the national defense budget.  The removal of this price support would result in the equivalent of a $1.27 to $3.74 per gallon rise in the cost of gas, which would cause many people to cut back on driving, increase municipal tax revenues through more efficient land use, and stimulate a renewed focus on rail-based mass transit.  Dozens of cities have replaced the requirement of businesses to provide off-street parking with “in-lieu”.  This means that in lieu of providing private parking, which causes downtowns to become parking bloated, businesses pay the city to provide shared parking within a short walk.  In this way, parking demand can be determined by cities and the supply of spaces adjusted accordingly.  These measures have reduced parking, increased transit and foot traffic, and improved economics and livability.

Walkable Communites are Healthier

Economically, physical inactivity costs the nation more than 10% of its annual medical expenses*.  Studies have found that physical inactivity is associated with a 30-50% increase in heart disease, a 30% increase in hypertension, and increases in strokes and more than one type of cancer.  There are detractors, like Randall O’Toole and Wendell Cox, who Speck calls “soulless pundits, funded by the automobile industry”.  Of course, neither of these two mouthpieces supports rail transit, even in places like Portland, Oregon, where business activity and property values sharply increased along and immediately adjacent to new transit lines.  Since people normally walk to public transit, it can be argued that taking the train or bus to work is generally healthier than driving, which involves no walking but plenty of stressful concentration.  Automobile usage also isolates drivers from others, something desirable at times but not as a forced, daily regimen resulting from a lack of transportation options.  Walking, biking, and transit expose users to the outdoors and to their neighbors, encounters that can lead to friendships and healthy networking.

Improved Walkability through Balanced Transportation

Like the correlation between parking and land use in central cities, the amount of driving in a city is related to how well that city’s transportation is balanced.   When London began congestion pricing, congestion fell by 30% and cycling increased by 20%.  Buses schedule performance improved by 60% and the billion dollars worth of congestion pricing revenue has been invested in public transit.  Meanwhile, back in Portland, pedestrian activity increased 1000-fold outside retail businesses located along a new streetcar line.  And the urban bike revolution beginning to strengthen across America is leading to dozens of cities rolling out new bike lane networks.  When constructed in harmony with traffic calming and complete streets configurations, bike lanes contribute to safer streets for all users.  On New York City’s Ninth Avenue, for example, accidents and injuries sharply declined for all users following the installation of protected bike lanes. 

Reclaiming American Downtowns for People

The first step toward reclaiming our urban centers for pedestrians is to acknowledge our ability to do so.  It isn’t inevitable that cars flow “into every nook and cranny”, nor a global standard.  The author explains “induced demand” as the phenomenon of trying to solve congestion by building a new freeway.  That is, “if you build it, they will come”, hence new lanes and roads quickly become gridlocked.  Road diets, on the other hand, have been shown to reduce demand while not impeding traffic flow.  While not suggesting a wholesale removal of roads, the author makes a salient case for making our city centers more pleasing places to be.  People are much more comfortable walking “down a narrow, shop-lined street in icy-Boston” than “down an arterial between parking lots and car dealerships in San Diego” because street design trumps the weather.

* Gotschi and Mills – Active Transportation For America, pp47-8