A great discussion about creating “Walk Appeal”

Recently, architect Steve Mouzon came out with a great article about what it takes to make walking appealing.  He argued that people are willing to walk much further than we normally think, but that it all has to do with how enjoyable/interesting/comfortable the route is.  He uses the comparison of a typical suburban strip mall layout and a section of Rome to make his point:

Both images below are at the same scale, and the yellow dashed line is a quarter-mile radius. On the left is a power center. As we all know, if you’re at Best Buy and need to pick something up at Old Navy, there’s no way you’re walking from one store to another. Instead, you get in your car and drive as close as possible to the Old Navy front door. You’ll even wait for a parking space to open up instead of driving to an open space just a few spaces away… not because you’re lazy, but because it’s such a terrible walking experience.

The image on the right is Rome. The circles are centered on the Piazza del Popolo (North is to the left) and the Green radius goes through the Vittorio Emanuele on the right. People regularly walk that far and then keep on walking without ever thinking of driving.

More recently, Kaid Benfield wrote an article for The Atlantic Cities expanding upon Mouzon’s theories.  Benfield offers some additional factors that might make people choose to walk greater distances vs. not:

  • Purpose. To an extent, I think Steve’s examples compare apples, oranges, pears, and grapes. We travel in different places for different reasons that affect our willingness to walk. In particular, to make the power-center-versus-Rome comparison a fair one, a hypothetical traveler would have to be on the same sort of journey. In the original example, the traveler started at Best Buy, an electronics store. If she were there to purchase, say, a television, then the chances that she will be walking two miles to her next shopping destination are slim even if she has the option of walking down Rome’s finest street to get there. One typically goes to Best Buy and Old Navy for different purposes than one walks two miles in Rome. (Incidentally, I recall buying a bunch of heavy wool sweaters in Dublin and walking two miles along very pleasant streets to my next destination, the finish of a bike race. The second mile was no fun, and next time I’m taking a taxi.)
  • Safety. A long walk that is visually appealing but in a sketchy area for crime is unlikely to have much walk appeal, even if its urbanism suggests that it should. Also, does walk appeal vary by time of day? I suspect it does; I’ll walk farther in daylight than in the dark, unless it’s oppressively hot in the daytime.
  • Convenience and time. Just speaking for myself, I will indeed walk two miles in parts of New York or Paris or Washington if I can spare the time, but depending on terrain, climate, crosswalk interruptions and other factors it will probably take me somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. When I leave my office for home via the DC Metro, for example, I frequently get off a stop or two early, so that I can enjoy a longer, pleasant walk home – one to one and a half miles instead of just the half mile from the stop nearest my house. But not if I’m short of time. (Of course, my experience in New York is that it is going to take me a long time to get anywhere no matter which mode I choose, so I might as well walk even if the route isn’t that pleasant.)
  • Nature. It’s not just about streets and buildings. I will walk farther if I can traverse or at least walk alongside a park on the way to my destination. In fact, I will deliberately lengthen my journey in order to go through a great park such as the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris. So will many people I know.  We humans are biophilic creatures.
  • Alternatives. Just as there are places where walking is a terrible experience, there are places where driving is a terrible experience. Heck, there are places where public transportation is a terrible experience, too. (Arguably, most American cities fall into the latter category.) We weigh the costs and benefits of our choices and may walk farther if the other  options are poor.
  • Environmental intensity. In one of Steve’s blog posts, a commenter suggested that “people density,” creating a sense of liveliness, is helpful. I would agree, but to a point. Crowds can be oppressive and can slow one’s walk. Sound matters, too: music can be helpful, but construction noise is a killer for walking. Construction sites in general can severely limit the appeal of walking. So can the kinds of streets I frequently encounter in New York where trucks are constantly loading and unloading things and businesses leave their garbage in the street for pickup. I suppose the trick is to be in the range where there is enough intensity to add interest but not so much as to make the walk unpleasant.

All in all, these two articles give us a lot to ponder here in Tucson.  As part of our 2012-2013 Pedestrian Safety & Comfort Campaign, we’re diving into the nitty-gritty of what it really takes to make Tucson a truly walkable place.  The biggest challenge is that making walking comfortable relies on human-scale conditions — things you might not otherwise notice/observe when driving, but that make a huge difference when your walking and the pace, temperature, noise, etc. make all the difference.

What do you think it will take to make Tucson a place that you want to walk?



Read the full “Walk Appeal” article by Steve Mouzon here.

Read the full “Can We Quantify a Good Walk?” article by Kaid Benfield here.

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