Walkable Places And Streets

If New Urbanism can be boiled down to a single idea, perhaps it would make places walkable. But what makes pedestrians feel attracted to one location and want to avoid another?

One answer is simple proximity. A place within a quarter mile of shops, houses, schools, parks, entertainment venues, workplaces, and other types of uses has the potential to be highly walkable. The Walkscore website measures this proximity.

Street Network

But there is much more to walkability than proximity. The quality of the walk is just as important, perhaps more s, than the distance. In other words, walkability is more about the journey than the destination. The way walking routes are laid out exceptionally impacts that journey.

For example, the pattern of blocks and streets is critical. Most highly walkable places are organized into a fine-grained way of streets and blocks. Se,e, for example, the Google map view of a neighborhood in San Francisco. The blocks are approximately 480 feet by 240 feet — under 4 acres each. This pattern provides about 230 intersections per square mile. Although the numbers may sound technical to many people, they indicate a fine-grained block pattern that allows for a lot of interesting diversity for pedestrians. The intersections are attractive to commercial uses, and many blocks can have their character. As awalkers walkerss can choose from an almost infinite number of potential routes to get through the neighborhood. Perhaps more importantly, automobile traffic is dispersed, allowing streets to be built at a human scale that is not intimidating or dangerous for pedestrians.
On the other hand, the suburban area in Virginia Beach has a very large-grain block pattern. According to the Center for Neighborhood Technology, the average block size in this census tract is 12-16 acres. A pedestrian trying to get from one place to another finds the distances interminable and the lack of variety unappealing. In addition, automobile traffic is concentrated on commercial streets that must be built very large. Pedestrians immediately sense the danger and get in a car if possible.


Beyond the block and street pattern, the design of the thoroughfares is also critical. Are they too wide, allowing traffic to move dangerously fast? Are crossing distances so great that pedestrians feel vulnerable from one block to the next? In downtown Los Angeles — a place with a very high Walkscore due to the proximity of uses — I found that a pedestrian has to be in good physical condition to get across the street. The thoroughfares are so broad that pedestrians often have to trot or run to the curb to ensure they are not caught in the middle when traffic begins to move again. That’s not very walkable. The most walkable places, in general, are those with narrow thoroughfares that are easy to traverse.
Details such as sidewalk width, street trees, on-street parking, and architecture are also critical to walkability. However, it isn’t easy to describe the complete ensemble that makes a place walkable. Each walkable location is unique. Dan Burden — one of the foremost experts on the details of walkable places — describes three business characteristics that make them walkable. One is transparency — seeing adjacent environments, such as the inside of shops or across the street into a park — is essential. A sense of enclosure — the coziness produced by the space between buildings and street trees — also makes pedestrians more comfortable. Another critical quality is human scale — a higher quality pedestrian environment is created with many small-scale structures rather than a single large building.