The built environment has a huge influence on walkability. You probably have an idea of what features of a street make it more or less walkable, but have you given it much thought? There are a number of different frameworks that have been developed to guide the way we think about this. Some, such as WalkScore, have focused on the number of amenities that are within walking distance. However, there has been some debate about what “walking distance” really means. According to New Urbanist architect and urban designer Steve Mouzon, this distance varies depending on the design of the built environment. On his blog Original Green, Mouzon describes his new tool for analyzing walkability, which he calls “Walk Appeal.” Walk Appeal focuses on the characteristics of the built environment that increase or decrease the distance a person is likely to be willing to walk. The Walk Appeal scale uses certain design features to explain differences in what is a “walkable” distance. In a traditional downtown shopping district, people are likely to walk up to ¾ of a mile to reach their destination, while in a commercial “power center,” people usually walk no farther than from where the car is parked to the front door of the big-box store.
When was the last time you chose to walk along Roosevelt Boulevard because it was pleasant? If you can’t remember, it’s because you probably haven’t. Mouzon believes pedestrians will only walk as little as 25 feet on “parking backed roads” such as this one because of how they perceive the street. Busy arterial roads have little to make the pedestrian experience more interesting, and they’re full of speeding cars emitting noxious fumes.
Walk Appeal places visual and physical attributes of development into categories depending on how they affect walkability. Determining which Walk Appeal category a place fits into can be done by looking at objective characteristics, which Mouzon calls Walk Appeal “measurables.” One measurable characteristic is the percentage of the facade of a building that is made up of windows. Buildings with greater percentages of windows give pedestrians something to look at, which makes a walk more interesting. Another measurable is the presence of “goals in the middle distance,” objects or landmarks between 1 block and 2 miles away that act as an incentive to keep on walking.
Many characteristics of places that have low Walk Appeal are features of the built environment that were designed specifically for cars, and these can be fairly obvious—overly wide streets, lack of sidewalks, giant parking lots, etc. However, just paving a sidewalk is often not enough to accommodate pedestrians in addition to other road users. This requires “complete streets”—roadways that are designed to enable the safe passage of all users, regardless of mode of transportation.
Where creating complete streets is not an option, traffic-calming measures can be applied to existing streets to make them more walkable. Traffic-calming measures use physical objects and visual cues to get drivers to slow down, rather than simply decreasing the speed limit, which often has no effect on changing how drivers approach a road. Some commonly used traffic-calming measures include speed humps, parklets, and curb bumpouts at intersections. They are often implemented by New Urbanists, who emphasize neighborhood-oriented design, in part to make communities more pedestrian friendly.
In Philadelphia, the Streets Department has piloted many traffic-calming features to improve pedestrian safety. Also, as part of the Design Philadelphia festival last fall, Better Blocks Philly temporarily installed some of these traffic-calming features in South Philadelphia. In September, the City was recognized for these efforts as a silver walk friendly community by the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center.
Of course, there are many factors in addition to design that go into making an area more walkable—safety, cleanliness, and having amenities within walking distance, to name a few—but designing streets with pedestrians in mind is one way to address some fundamental issues of walkability. Walk Appeal is an interesting concept that can inform the way we think about pedestrians and the built environment and provide us with a useful tool for assessing walkability.