Walkability For Dummies

Big cities and small towns are frantically trying to create and improve it. Planners are singing its praises and developers are selling its appeal. Young people and old people are making it a priority in their search for residence.

Yes, the term walkability has certainly become a very common buzz word… albeit a misunderstood one. I say misunderstood because despite anything you may have heard otherwise, you don’t build walkability, you can only build elements that encourage it. The first rule of understanding walkability is simple… it’s not a thing, it’s a culture created by a working balance of key elements.

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Walkability is what happens when density meets connectivity in a welcoming, pedestrian-first environment. Let’s break that down for a moment… obviously, for walkability, you need physical space for people to walk. A sidewalk, preferably a wide one, is fine here. But if density is low and the distance an individual has to walk to reach key destinations is 2 miles away or more, the sidewalk probably won’t get much use. However, when people can walk out their door, grab a coffee or a meal, walk to a transit stop and take a train or bus into work, all within a half mile, a walkable environment is born.

But we’re not done. Walking must be welcomed and encouraged. Street art, nuance, benches, trees, planters and anything else that might make your walk more beautiful and interesting.

Connectivity is key as well, and this is where transit comes in. If there is a transit stop in my walkable vicinity, I know I can get to where I need to go, regardless of my status in life. Train, bus, bike access… these are all important elements that compliment a walkable environment.

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Finally, the pedestrian experience must be prioritized. Traffic calming features, slow automobile speeds with minimal lanes, bump-outs, sidewalk protection, on-street parking, crosswalk signals that change without walkers having to push buttons… all of these are important in putting people before cars.

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Schenectady has done well to enable a walkable environment by creating a wide, safe and nuanced pedestrian experience, slowing traffic in their streets and welcoming a dense core of downtown businesses

Pedestrian prioritization and infrastructure. Proximity to transit. Density that allows for quick trips on foot. Welcoming additions that add to the walkers’ experience. Add one or two of these components and you still don’t have walkability. Instead you have elements that, if not balanced and interconnected, fail to produce their full potential. Like gears in a watch, all of the parts must align and be in sync in order for this strong intangible known as walkability to occur.

A sidewalk will be empty if low density negates its value. A well-signaled crosswalk does little if one must cross 5 lanes of traffic. A dense urban core or neighborhood that has elements of walkability, but is disconnected from transit service will still be car centric in nature, negating the point of walkability.

Walkability is a nearly universal goal for today’s communities big and small.  But it’s not just about sidewalks and brightly colored crosswalks… it’s about creating balance in an area where housing, resources, transit and destinations are tied together by a safe, convenient, prioritized and welcoming pedestrian experience.