So today was my first day of living carfree in Detroit! yay! It sounds more monumental than it really is given that I live and work in downtown Detroit. The question is – will I like it enough to stay that way in September or not? I’m open to anything…
I thought I would start the first post with some fundamental foundations of walkability for those who are interested. There are many definitions of walkability out there, but I recently found one that resonated with me more than others, and turns out to be very intuitive and easy to understand for those who haven’t yet taken a class on bike and pedestrian urban design / planning.
It’s called the Walk Appeal Index from Steve Mouzon who wrote the book The Original Green. His assertion is that the age old urban planner’s standard quarter mile radius = a 5 min walk is false. We as humans in the built environment walk only as far as the quality and appeal of the walking environment influences us to. It is a subconscious decision based on comfort with your walking surroundings, not an arbitrary radius.
He calls the highest level in the index the London/SFO/Boston/PHL/Venice/Barcelona/insert any large global city Standard – 2 miles. There are certain great global cities where you will walk miles without even realizing it because the walking environment is so great.
The Main Street Standard is 3/4 mile. Think downtown Birmingham, MI or downtown Royal Oak or Ferndale, each of those downtowns feels comfortable to walk about 3/4 mile. The buildings have no setbacks, they address the sidewalk, the storefronts are narrow and the visual plane of the pedestrian changes frequently, there are short and frequent blocks. All of these things are more comfortable than long stretches of blank walls and parking.
The Suburban Neighborhood Standard – 1/10 mile. Buildings are set back a little bit, the streets are still narrow, sidewalks and lighting are present, but the lots are larger so it takes longer to walk from building to building, the view changes slower, there are fewer physical or environmental features that give the street a sense of enclosure that humans need to feel comfortable. This is a fine walking typology when paired with some Main Street, but have too much of mono-suburban walkability and no one will walk anywhere. It must be paired with one of the other top two typologies to ultimately be successful.
The Subdivision Standard – 250 feet. Houses far from streets, no sidewalk, wide faster streets, no hedges or fences, etc. Walking doesn’t happen past more than a handful of homes, therefore you often don’t know more than a handful of your neighbors all that well.
The Power Center (big box) Standard – 100 feet. Parking lots for big box stores aren’t exactly appealing walking environments right? That’s why we try to park as close to the door as possible. It is uncomfortable to walk across a sea of parking lots, it is dreadful visually, but also unsafe, hot, lacking enclosure, visual interest, it is unchanging and lacking in human scale, or humans.
The worst level of the index is the one most prevalent in Detroit – the Parking-Backed Standard – 25 feet. This is what much of my walk to work in Detroit contains. This is where you have a travel lanes of a street on one side of you and parked cars directly on the other side. “Not only does it terminally bore you and leave you constantly awash in a sea of car exhaust fumes and sweating uncontrollably from the heat in summer, but it also is an incredibly dangerous place to walk. So people don’t.”
Which of these walkability typologies did you grow up in, do your parents live in, did you walk to school in, do you live in now, do you want to live in the future, do you want your children to grow up in? Next time you decide whether to walk or drive somewhere think about the walk appeal index of that place – because that is likely at the core of why you chose to walk vs drive, and then advocate for streets and zoning that supports greater walk appeal in your town or city!