Jeff Speck on the “walkability dividend”

I hesitate to post one more article about how great Portland is, as doing so just makes me feel that much worse about this state in which I’m currently trapped, but I just happened across a short interview between Richard “I speak for the creative class” Florida and Jeff Speck, the author of the new book Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America, One Step at a Time, and I feel compelled to share a bit of it, as I think it’s an important thing for those of us enmeshed in the car-centric ecosystem of the Motor City to be aware of. Here’s a clip.

FLORIDA: Let’s start with the basics: Why are cities becoming more walkable? What forces are pushing them toward greater walkability? Can you please explain, in a nutshell, your General Theory of Walkability? Why is this important?

SPECK: Some — and only some — cities are becoming more walkable because they understand that their sustainability (economic, health, and environmental) depends on it; or because they want to attract and retain young, educated adults; or because they are simply listening to the young or young-thinking adults in their administration; or some combination of the above. You yourself have written powerfully about huge declines in car worship among the millennials [see my Atlantic article here]. Another force is the empty nesters, who want to eventually “retire in place,” in a place where the car is not a mandatory prosthetic device. The NORC (Naturally Occurring Retirement Community) is an urban environment where doddering gets you to the store just fine.

The General Theory of Walkability explains how, to attract pedestrians, a place has to provide a walk that is simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting. This is extraordinarily difficult in most of our (driving) cities, and can only be accomplished when resources are concentrated where they can do the most good, rather than dispersed more evenhandedly across the city, which is the tendency. Many cities, to the degree that they spend money on walkability, do so in a way that accomplishes little, because nobody has identified those few places where a useful, comfortable, and interesting private realm can give life to an improved (less speedy) public realm. A “complete street” means nothing alongside a surface parking lot.

FLORIDA: Tell us about the group you dun the Walking Generation? Who are they? What exactly do they want?

SPECK: Like I need to tell you what millennials want? They are the recent college graduates who moved to Portland during the nineties at a rate five times the national average. 64 percent of them decide first where they want to live, and only then do they look for a job. Fully 77 percent of them say they want to live in America’s urban cores. The economist Chris Leinberger reminds us that, unlike my generation (raised on the suburban idyll of The Brady Bunch and The Partridge Family), they grew up watching Friends, Seinfeld, and Sex and the City. They care less about cars and mortgages, and don’t yet have need for a big yard or a good school. Instead, they want urban amenities with ready access to nature, bike lanes, good transit, and street life.

FLORIDA: You discuss the “Walkability Dividend.” I’m sure our readers would like to know how that applies to them and their cities.

SPECK: The Walkability Dividend is a concept advanced by the economist Joe Cortright and the non-profit CEOs for Cities, a group that has brought me into a small handful of downtowns with the understanding that all the events and amenities in the world won’t make a difference in the absence of pedestrian culture. In his 2007 white paper “Portland’s Green Dividend” [PDF], Cortright showed how that city’s urban growth boundary, coupled with its investments in bike lanes and transit, resulted in a remarkable phenomenon: Portland’s per-capita vehicle miles traveled peaked in 1996. Now Portlanders drive 20 percent less than the national average. This 20 percent results in financial savings and time savings that total almost four percent of GDP, ignoring all the wonderful externalities such as cleaner air and slimmer waistlines. Unlike driving dollars, 85 percent of which are sent out of town, much of those savings are spent locally, on housing and recreation. Portlanders are said to have the most roof racks, independent bookstores, and strip clubs per capita — all exaggerations, but only slight ones.

That’s the fun version of the story. Unfortunately, there is a sadder version, much more common. The typical American “working” family now pays more for transportation than for housing, thanks to the phenomenon of “drive ’til you qualify.” The working-class distant-fringe subdivisions were the ones hit hardest by the burst housing bubble, where so many families found themselves not only underwater on their mortgages but also unable to afford the thirteen car trips per day generated by the average exurban homestead. Our urban downtowns, where housing costs more per square foot, but transportation costs so much less, will figure heavily in our recovery from that debacle…

I should probably add that, despite my bitching about Michigan, I know that some progress is being made along these lines locally, and I appreciate the heroic work that many of you are doing, either through the Washtenaw Biking and Walking Coalition, as part of the task force that drafted Ypsilanti’s most recent Non-Motorized Transportation Plan, or relating to the build-out of the Border-to-Border Trail. I just don’t get the sense that we’re moving fast enough, or taking it as seriously as other communities, that, at least from an outsider’s perspective, really seem to understand that the future belongs to urban centers that invest in mass transit and plan for walkability, and not those that fight against it… And, yes, I’m still pissed that the Ypsi-Ann Interurban was decommissioned in 1929.

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  1. John Galt
    Posted January 7, 2013 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    Walking is for animals. It is not for dignified human beings, who have access to an endless supply of oil. Our country literally floats on a bottomless sea of pristine oil. If Obama would only let us access it, the price of gas would drop to pennies a tank. Instead, you hippies say that we should walk more. I say the real patriots are those who have sacrificed their legs to diabetes. That’s what America is all about.

  2. Edward
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    I’d agree, but it’s difficult to prioritize walkability in a state where union rights are under attack, schools are being privatized and abortion rights are being rolled back.

  3. Eel
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 9:11 am | Permalink

    Portland is wonderful….. until you’re strangled by dreadlocks.

  4. Knox
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    According to Slate the FTA is changing rules to encourage walkable neighborhoods.

    Here’s the article:

    The Federal Transit Administration is rolling out an important tweak to its grant criteria for mass transit projects in a way that should make the New Starts program substantially friendlier to dense walkable neighborhoods.

    I wrote about this a year ago at an earlier stage of the process. But under the old rules, basically the only criteria was how much do you speed-up commute times in the metro area in question. The way you speed commute times in a cost-effective manner is you take an existing congested freeway, and you expand freeway capacity by building a commuter rail line in the median, with park-and-ride stations spaced far apart (so the trains don’t waste time stopping and starting) surrounded by open air parking lots. That creates a new transportation option that’s not slowed down by traffic jams.

    But it doesn’t create anything like the walkable transit-oriented neighborhoods that we know from traditional cities. Urbanist rail transit requires stations to be relatively close together (so you get an extensive neighborhood) and it requires the stations to be surrounded not by parking lots but by fairly dense patterns of dwellings, shops, and offices. There’s no question that systems built on that model don’t move people as quickly as systems built on the park-and-ride model. And yet all the most-used rapid transit systems in America are built on the urbanist model rather than the park-and-ride model.

    As Angie Schmitt explains, the idea of the new model is to judge systems based not on time but “instead on the number of passengers expected to be served.” That doesn’t prohibit a park-and-ride plan if that’s what’s best-suited to local conditions. But it means that projects focused on density—not just in terms of the transportation infrastructure built but the existence of complementary zoning and such—have a much better chance to win.

  5. Lynne
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    I have to admit that I get very frustrated with the many people in Michigan who are outright opposed to public transportation. They fight it and fight it even though every bit of evidence shows that good public transportation is good for any place of a certain density. The only thing such people seem to hate more are bike lanes and sidewalks. I don’t know if there is an answer other than to keep trying to improve our communities.

    FWIW, I moved to Ypsilanti specifically because it is walkable and because I can get to my job by bus. I sometimes go whole weeks without driving my car or driving it very minimally. I can grocery shop at the Food Co-op, go out to eat at several really good restaurants, buy gifts, etc. I can get almost all of my needs met without a car and there have been times when my car has broken down and my location and proximity to public transportation has meant that I was able to get by just fine. I can see perfectly why walkable communities are the way of the future.

    All I need now is that darn train to Detroit!

  6. alan2102
    Posted January 8, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    In other news that you may have missed….
    Thursday Dec 20, 2012
    Obama, Biden are war criminals under UN Charter: Analyst
    “Speaking last week at a Summit Conference on Human Rights held at the University of the Sacred Heart in the US island colony of Puerto Rico, [international law expert Francis Boyle, a professor of law at the University of Illinois] said US authorities, including President Obama, are engaged in an “ongoing criminal conspiracy under international law” both to cover up and protect criminals like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, and to continue the commission of war crimes by the US government.”

    Secrets and Lies of the Bailout
    The federal rescue of Wall Street didn’t fix the economy – it created a permanent bailout state based on a Ponzi-like confidence scheme. And the worst may be yet to come
    By Matt Taibbi
    January 4, 2013 4:25 PM ET
    “It was all a lie – one of the biggest and most elaborate falsehoods ever sold to the American people. We were told that the taxpayer was stepping in – only temporarily, mind you – to prop up the economy and save the world from financial catastrophe. What we actually ended up doing was the exact opposite: committing American taxpayers to permanent, blind support of an ungovernable, unregulatable, hyperconcentrated new financial system that exacerbates the greed and inequality that caused the crash, and forces Wall Street banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup to increase risk rather than reduce it. The result is one of those deals where one wrong decision early on blossoms into a lush nightmare of unintended consequences. We thought we were just letting a friend crash at the house for a few days; we ended up with a family of hillbillies who moved in forever, sleeping nine to a bed and building a meth lab on the front lawn.”

  7. Mr. X
    Posted January 10, 2013 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    It’s this kind of attitude that irks me.

    It’s not about walkability, but I think it illustrates what we’re up against.

    It’s from today’s

    “Hundreds of solar panels installed on University of Michigan property on Plymouth Road in northeast Ann Arbor have upset residents who say the array is an eyesore”

    2012 was a full degree warmer than 2011. That’s the biggest rise in recorded history. And we’re complaining that solar panels aren’t pretty. Give me a fucking break.

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