What is Walkability?
Transportation choice –the option to walk, bike, take transit, or drive to destinations – is a key element of building a dynamic, sustainable city. Providing our residents with the choice to walk as a mode of transit is the most basic piece of this –walking has the least impact on the environment, is the healthiest mode of transportation, and has the least individual financial cost associated with it.
Why is Walkability Important?
- Walkable Neighborhoods improve health and wellness: In Eugene, as in most of America, obesity is a serious problem. Almost 70% of our population is obese or overweight. Walking just 30 minutes a day can have a major impact on managing weight. In a walkable neighborhood, that can be accomplished through errands you'd be running anyway.
- Walking is better for the environment: About 400 grams of CO2 are emitted for each mile driven. Reducing the number of car trips needed to accomplish daily activities can greatly reduce air pollution and green house gas emissions.
- Walking costs less money: The median cost of car ownership is around $9,100 per year. Money spent on cars, fuels, and insurance leaves our community. Walking is a free mode of transpiration that all can afford.
- Walking is more accessible: Some people can't drive due to a disability; others want to give children more freedom. In 2009, 13% of the driving age population didn't have a driver's license, and that number is growing every year. Walkable neighborhoods allow more freedom for those who can't or don't want to drive.
What Makes an Area Walkable?
For an area to be truly walkable, it must be useful, safe, comfortable and interesting to get around by walking.
- For a neighborhood to be useful for walking, a variety of destinations – homes, workplaces, shops, schools, parks, and transit stops – should be located relatively nearby. Eugene's 20 minute neighborhood goals aim to have a variety of appealing destinations within about 20 minute walk, or about a mile.
- Safety means that the street has been designed to allow pedestrians to move through the area with limited risk of injury. This includes complete sidewalks, plentiful and well-marked road crossings, appropriate lighting, and reasonable vehicular speeds. It also includes “eye-on-the-street” and other factors that make neighborhoods and routes safer from crime.
- Comfortable means the scale and structure of the space is appealing to people on foot. In general, people prefer walking where buildings are neither too tall nor too short, where sunlight reaches their shoulders, where there are enough people to make it feel friendly but not crowded, and where there is a variety in the buildings they pass. Comfortable pedestrian environments have short blocks, frequent doors, and eyes on the street.
- Interesting walkable spaces make walking a pleasant experience. Storefronts, street trees, front gardens, good building design, and public art lead to a more engaging experience while walking.
In addition, walkable spaces should be accessible to people of varying levels of mobility –wide sidewalks in good repair, curb-cuts for crossing, occasional seating space, sheltered transit stops, and pedestrian friendly traffic lights help ensure that all types of people can get from place to place by foot.
The Challenge In Eugene
According to Walkscore.com, Eugene's overall walkability score is 41 out of a 100. We are a car dependent city in which most errands require a car. Despite being in a dead heat with Salem for second largest city in Oregon, we are only the 12th most walkable in Oregon-- Portland, Corvallis, and Springfield all outrank us.
Most of Eugene was first built during the post-war heyday of the automobile, with free-standing homes and room for two cars. This led to the spread of neighborhoods which are not particularly walkable. Today, most Eugeneans do not live in walkable neighborhoods. Even many neighborhoods which have destinations nearby lack key elements of walkability. For example, the South Willamette Neighborhood has hundreds of homes in close proximity to transit, retail, restaurants, and work locations, but many of the residential streets lack sidewalks, and the key corridor of Willamette Street is inhospitable to walkers
What is Needed
We can do better at providing our residents with walkable, 20-minute neighborhoods. To create 20-minute neighborhoods, where residents can walk to many destinations within 20 minutes, and connect to other modes of transit (such as buses or bike routes) to allow them to get to further-off destinations without a car, we should focus on the following:
Make Walking Safe:
- Sidewalks: Too many of our neighborhoods lack sidewalks entirely, or have sidewalks that are extremely narrow, have gaps, and are in disrepair. In Eugene, it is the responsibility of property owners to construct and maintain sidewalks in front of their property. We don’t expect property owners to maintain the public street to allow car travel in front of their building; why do we expect private property owners fund the routes for foot travel? Improving our sidewalk funding structure will make it easier to add sidewalks where necessary to create safe and comfortable walking routes, and to more effectively maintain the sidewalks that already exist.
- Buffers: Walking down a sidewalk with cars zipping just a few inches from you feels dangerous and unsafe. Creating buffers—of street trees, parking lanes, bike lanes, and landscaping-- between the edge of the sidewalk and the edge of the travel lane makes walking much safer. Too often, street trees and utility poles are put between the sidewalk and the buildings, or don’t exist at all. Creating a buffer between the sidewalk and the street, both increase the comfort of the walk and improve safety—the damage done to a utility pole by a car that leaves the road is more easily repaired than the damage done to a human, and a slight trip is less likely to put a walker in the path of an oncoming car.
- Obstructions: We wouldn’t expect drivers to weave in and out of utility poles and road signs; why do we expect walkers to do so? Trees and poles should create a buffer between the sidewalk and the street. Signage, utility infrastructure, benches, bus stops, and other possible impediments should be located either in the planter strip buffer between the sidewalk and street, or flush with buildings, leaving a wide, unobstructed space for pedestrians in the middle. Temporary construction signs should be placed in such a way that they do not impede foot traffic and, if necessary, an alternate path should be created to allow pedestrians to navigate around construction without going substantially out of their way.
- Lighting: For walking to be a useful mode of transportation, it needs to be safe at all times of day and night. Lighting helps ensure that drivers and bike riders can see walkers, reduces the likelihood of tripping or falling over obstructions or cracks, and inhibits criminal activity targeted at walkers. Ample pedestrian-scale lighting should be provided on walking routes, particularly at intersections.
- Speed: The faster a car is going, the greater the likelihood that a collision will end in serious injury or death for a person walking. Cars on walkable streets should be traveling slowly – 25 miles an hour or less. Simply setting the speed limit at 25 isn’t enough – the street should be engineered to ensure that drivers feel most comfortable going more slowly, by having narrow lanes, street parking, bump-outs, single lanes (as opposed to two lanes traveling in the same direction), and other features that reduce the likelihood of speeding.
- Crossing: Like everyone else, walkers don’t want to have to travel blocks out of their way—and in fact are less likely to, since it takes longer to travel a block on foot than in a car or on a bike. Crossing in unmarked crossing or unsafe locations is substantial more likely when there are blocks or miles between marked crossing, and drivers are less likely to be alert for crossing walkers if they have no indication that crossing is likely. Crossing should be frequent and well-marked so that drivers know to expect walkers in the road.
Make Walking Useful:
- Destinations: For walking to be a useful mode of transportation, there must be places to walk to. Mixed use areas, with multiple options for both daily and specialty shopping, restaurants and entertainment venues, schools and educational instructions, daycare facilities, and places of work such as offices, should be located near residential uses. For a true 20-minute neighborhood, a wide mix of uses should be available within a half-mile radius.
- Amount of housing: A retail establishment needs many customers to be successful. The more housing that is located near commercial areas, the more people who will live close enough to their destinations to be able to replace car trips with walking trips. The more customers who are able to walk to their shops, the less retail establishments and offices will be dependent on parking and traffic conditions to maintain their customer base. Concentrating housing near commercial areas creates a positive loop of walkability.
- Transportation Connections: Even in the most robust walkable neighborhoods, there will still be destinations that are outside of walking-distance. Near-by bike routes and transit connections allow walkers to get to other areas of the city more easily, and make walking for at least part of a trip more feasible.
- Parking Minimums: Off-street parking is not pedestrian-friendly. Surface parking lots increase the amount of space between destinations, and are frequently unpleasant or risky to walk through. While a balance needs to be created between allowing space to store cars and building a walkable environment, high statutory parking minimums frequently result in more parking than necessary. Parking minimums should be eliminated or set at a low level, to allow property owners to build just the amount of parking necessary for their business or home, and reducing the likelihood of acres of parking that are only half filled even at Christmas time.
- Parks and Open Space: Almost everyone enjoys open spaces. Walkable neighborhoods have parks where that people can enjoy within walking distance. In addition, smaller open spaces, such as plazas, pocket-parks, courtyards, and outdoor restaurant seating should be encouraged, including providing incentives to developers to set aside some land for public open space.
Make Walking Comfortable and Interesting:
- Street Trees: Street trees, set in a planter strip between the road and the sidewalk, help make a walk substantially more comfortable. They provide a sense of safety, slow cars, provide shade and a visual canopy helps create a comfortable sense of enclosure, and make a walk more interesting. At the same time, tree roots can push up and damage sidewalks or have branches hanging down into the walkway that must be dodged. Street trees should plentiful, but of varieties that are less likely to cause damage and other hazards on the sidewalk. In addition, sufficient resources need to be provided to maintain the trees, to ensure that branches don’t grow down to inhibit travel, to clear leaves, and to repair damage caused by the root structure.
- Pedestrian Amenities (benches, water fountains, trash cans, etc.): Unlike drivers, walkers aren’t sitting, nor can they place their empty beverage holder aside until they get to a trashcan. Providing benches or other seating ensure that walkers have a place to rest, particularly necessary for walkers with more limited mobility. Trashcans, water fountains, and other pedestrian amenities help ensure that a walk is comfortable and pleasant.
- Scale and Sidewalk Width: Humans feel more comfortable when they have a sense of enclosure. A balance needs to be found between ensuring that walkers have enough space that they don’t feel crowded, and ensuring that they don’t feel overly exposed. Sidewalks should be wide enough for a planter strip, as well as at least two to three people to walk abreast – with wider sidewalks in busier commercial areas. Buildings should be set back just far enough to ensure that walkers don’t feel crowded, but not so far back that walkers are unable to see into shop windows.
- No Parking in Front: Parking in front a building both destroys any sense of enclosure, and forces walkers to cross parking lots to access buildings. Front parking is a key sign of a lack of walkability. With the exception of street parking creating a buffer between the sidewalk and the street, parking should be located to the rear of a building.
- Walker’s Entrances: On a walkable street, the primary entrance to shops and other points of interest should be easy to access by walkers. All too often the main entrances are most easily accessed through the parking lot, even if parking is located to the side or rear of the building. Entrances should be immediately accessible from the sidewalk, preferable on the side most used by pedestrians. In rainy Oregon, overhangs and other rain protection over entrances is also beneficial.
- Windows and Building Design: Nothing is less interesting than a blank wall or a half-empty parking lot. Walking feels faster and more pleasant when the walker has interesting things to look at, as opposed to a dull expanse of sameness. Other people are the most interesting, so outdoor seating and other elements that encourage many people on the sidewalk are important. Shop windows easily visible from the sidewalk with engaging displays both encourage walkers to patronize businesses as well as provide interest along the walk. In commercial areas, the first floor should be reserved for retail businesses and similar functions, as opposed to private uses such as offices. Variation in building design, frequent windows and entrances, landscaping, and porches that encourage individuals to sit out front of their homes also increase the interest of a walk, particularly on residential streets without shops.