The future of walkability in an autonomous world
Autonomous vehicles should make life safer for pedestrians, but will they hurt demand for walkability?
Recently, there’s been an increased push to make our downtowns and suburbs more walkable. Urban planners and citizens alike have tried to undo some of the car-centric nature of our urban environment. Jeff Speck, who literally wrote the book on the topic, fears we could be headed for a reversal of that pendulum swing as autonomous vehicles usher in a new age of sprawl.
In a recent talk at the Congress for a New Urbanism, Speck said, “Every major transportation advance has brought with it whole new concepts of what the city is. The problem is that all these inventions have turned out to make our lives worse, and we have to come crawling back from them. What works best for humans is the traditional city of blocks, streets and squares… Traditional urbanism was not an invention but evolved naturally as a response to human needs. The adoption of autonomous vehicles should not be allowed to replace it with something different.” When he asks What the Future, he’s focused on the ability of cities to meet the demand for walkability whatever the autonomous future may hold.
GenPop: Refresh our memory: What are the benefits of walkability?
Speck: There are clear health benefits in terms of less inactivity. There are clear economic benefits in terms of money saved on transportation and spent on more productive things locally. There are obvious environmental benefits in terms of reduced greenhouse gases. There are also social benefits in that you can demonstrate that people who know their neighbors better and have broader social networks and are happier in more walkable places, but that, again, is something that people aren’t necessarily thinking about. Finally, there are equity benefits in the sense that among those who can’t drive, the poor and minorities are disproportionately present.
GenPop: What can cities and others do to help promote walkability?
Speck: I’m the last person to advocate for walking campaigns. My opinion, and it’s in no way sullied by this information, is that because we know walkability is better for society – whether or not people say they want it – then a society which values its future economic, health, environment, equity and community will invest in it in the same way that they invest in health care. The bottom line is there’s no encouraging walkability, there’s only providing landscape which makes it great to walk. We try to create places where the walk is useful, comfortable, safe and interesting. The main issue isn’t how many people want more walkability than they have, it’s that there are a lot of people who want walkability and don’t have it. I hear them every day.
GenPop: We surveyed about what amenities people can walk to, want to walk to and do walk to. What did you think of the data?
Jeff Speck: The first thing I want to say is, I take this data seriously, and I’m not trying to explain it away. But it doesn’t match the data that I’ve seen and repeated. I’m always hearing, “We want walkability,” and of course I’ve built my career on the fact that people want it. I’m flabbergasted that only 39 percent of respondents want to be able to walk to a grocery store. Why do only 34 percent of people want to be able to walk to a public park? Who are these people?
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