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Walkability: We’re #5! How do we get to #1?

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Walkability is a measure of how friendly a community is to walking. Walkability’s impact is not limited to the built environment—it affects to well-being, safety, environmental quality, and economic vitality of communities.

Walkability is something that Philadelphia does well. We rank fifth in the nation in walkability, according to Walk Score. Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, noting our good standing at last night’s Urban Sustainability Forum, posed the question, “What do we have to do to become #1?”

Dom Nozzi, executive director of Walkable Streets, says the next wave of transportation planning and design will focus on “fixing the mistakes we’ve made.” “It’s not about providing new facilities for pedestrians, but about taking some of the space now allotted to cars and putting it into the realm of pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Taking the space from cars and using it for bicyclists and pedestrians results in a very different design philosophy for the public right of way. After decades of designing “forgiving streets,” transportation planners are embracing “street chaos”, which is a lot less risky than it sounds.

Forgiving streets are engineered with wide lanes, easy turns, and plenty of stoplights to reduce the attention and decision-making demanded of drivers. Instead of making streets safer, though, forgiving streets has engendered inattentive drivers… and more traffic accidents.

Street chaos—right of ways designed to force drivers to slow down and pay attention—has a toolbox that includes chicanes, surface patterns and textures, and mid-block pedestrian crossings. Last October’s Better Blocks Philly demonstrated these design elements of walkability convincingly.

“It’s not so much about training professionals to design walkable streets,” says Nozzi, “but more about giving them permission to apply what they already know.” He recounted a story about a city official who put out a call for a safe intersection design for parents with children. He was flooded with ideas and options.

Philadelphia is ahead of the game, according to city planner Debby Schaaf, who is leading Philadelphia’s soon-to-be-completed pedestrian and bicycle plan. Our city’s mix of land uses puts lots of useful destinations (stores, restaurants, the gym—and work, if you’re lucky) within walking distance. Our narrow easy-to-cross streets, a continuous network of sidewalks, and (oddly enough)short signal cycles that minimize waits at intersections encourage walking.

For all that, Philly rates a silver level designation from the Walk Friendly Communities Program , a nationwide program with the goal of encouraging towns and cities throughout the United States to establish (or recommit to) a high priority for encouraging and supporting more safe walking. What do we have to do to go for the gold?

Walk Friendly says Philadelphia needs to pay more attention to our network of sidewalks—keeping them in good repair and retrofitting many of them. A full time pedestrian coordinator on the city’s staff and training to help city officials support walkability in their day-to-day decision making would also earn us points.

Walkability is a fascinating corner (intersection?) of transportation planning where lots of innovative, interdisciplinary thinking is happening. It promises to have a growing influence.

Bradley Flamm of Temple University’s Center for Sustainable Communities tells us to watch out for these emerging trends: a new focus on walkability in suburban places (where half of all Americans now live), universal design principles applied to entire neighborhoods, and a more critical inquiry into the relationship between the built environment and community health.
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