Is walkability only about mobility?

By David Maddox

Walkability and green spaces are not the same thing, but it feels as if they ought to be related somehow. This is because walkability in its most basic form is more than some version of "is possible to walk there", but also "is possible and pleasant to walk there."

Or is it?

One published definition of walkability, for example, is: "The extent to which the built environment is friendly to the presence of people living, shopping, visiting, enjoying or spending time in an area." (from Walkability Scoping Paper, 2005).

All the action is in the word "friendly", and there's a lot of unpacking to do.

There are a variety of formal metrics that attempt to quantify walkability, and by examining the underlying inputs to these measures one can discern what the creators of the metrics viewed as important. For example, I wrote about what forms the guts of most green city metrics, and found that literal green plays a disappointingly small role. So, what about walkability metrics? For walkability scores, standard inclusions are things such as: distance to amenities, connectivity (e.g., crosswalks), security, lighting, traffic volume and speed, and so on. Certainly all these things are important. New York City scores well on such metrics; Dallas scores less well. Although I haven't seen similar scores for cities such as Mumbai and Nairobi, I suspect their walkability measurements are low.

Here I'd like to make a distinction in walkability that most metrics seem to leave out: there are places we can walk and there are places in which we can walk and are nice to walk. In this distinction the formal metrics are less discerning. In addition to safety, connectivity, and access, what makes a street walkable? I would argue that it includes trees, shade, plantings, and the visual interest and biophilia that the former support - things that make sidewalks pleasant and comfortable places to be. Many "walkable" streets in fact contain these things. You can see it in the photos that often accompany studies of walkable streets - most of them contain trees. But trees, or other ecological aspects, aren't in the metrics. They should be.

For this reason I am attracted to the crowd-sourced measures of walkability, such as Walkonomics, Rate My Street, and the smart devices-based App Walkability, which allow pedestrians to rate the walkability of streets themselves. Even these methods, though, steer people into the usual categories, but with crowd-sourced data at least people have the possibility of transcending the categories.

One of the points I make in "We're Number 1* (*Depending): The Values Embedded in 'Most Green City' Lists" is that including different attributes among the values built into a methodology will change the ranking of cities - as any change in the metric would. Since nature elements ought to be critical to walkability, leaving them out, as the rankings now largely do, creates an incomplete sense of walkability, which impedes both planning for improvements in these areas, but also corrupts pubic perception - and ultimately policy - about what makes up a "walkable" street.

Now this might be splitting hairs in Mumbai, which has more fundamental problems to get walkability up and away from near zero. But the core message here is that we need to build a comprehensive conceptual model of walkability and build social momentum for it, so that this unified concept can be applied more broadly, and be used to advocate for better streets for people everywhere.

Photo 1: Corn, tomatoes and peppers in a street tree pit "micro-garden" in East Midtown, New York City. Photo 2: A woman walking in a street in Mumbai. It may not be walkable, but she is walking in it. Both photos by David Maddox.

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