A Sidewalk isn't Enough

Jon Larsen is a member of Strong Towns who works for an organization that has created a new tool to comprehensively measure the walk-environment. Today he shares about that tool.

For decades, we’ve convinced ourselves that a sidewalk is good enough- that if we build a sidewalk, we’ve met the pedestrian’s needs. The truth is that a sidewalk is just the first step in meeting those needs.  

When we build a sidewalk that is sandwiched between a 40 mph street and a parking lot, we invite humans into a world designed for fast-moving machines, and most people aren’t comfortable with such an awkward invitation. Humans are smart. We pick up on dozens of cues and hints from the world around us. We intuitively know if an environment is designed for walking or driving, but we often have a hard time explaining why. The good news is that we’re getting better at not only explaining why, but measuring why people choose to walk.  

The things we measure tend to be the things we focus on, and the things we focus on tend to be the things we improve.

The things we measure tend to be the things we focus on, and the things we focus on tend to be the things we improve. For decades, traffic engineers have focused predominantly on measuring auto traffic.  Traffic engineering has become a science in which traffic congestion is forecast with precision. There are standards which state that certain levels of congestion are unacceptable, creating the impetus for investment in wider, faster roads. Because delay can be measured and forecast, it’s easy to set standards and communicate how well the facility is performing relative to those standards.

Imagine if we could provide a score and standards for how attractive the walk environment is along a street. What if we scored the walkability of streets and flagged the blocks that are below an acceptable standard? We’d create the impetus for investment in the walkability of the street. We could also highlight blocks that score well so that others could use them as an example.  

Measuring Urban Design: Metrics for Livable Places by Otto Clemente and Reid Ewing outlines a procedure for quantifying the urban design, and therefore, the walkability of a street. This methodology breaks urban design into five elements that have been proven to impact one’s willingness to walk: Imageability, Enclosure, Human Scale, Transparency, and Complexity. Each of these elements is measured, rated, and aggregated into an overall urban design score for the block.

The Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC) has used this methodology to score streets throughout the greater Salt Lake metropolitan area. There has been a push recently in the region to encourage walking and biking and to improve air quality. In addition, the region has been implementing the Wasatch Choice Vision. The Vision identifies specific locations where local governments want to create or enhance walkable, mixed-use centers. By measuring the urban design of these streets, we are supporting these efforts.

To view the story map of this tool, click here, or on the picture above. The results displayed in the map represent an effort to score over 1,200 blocks throughout the region. We focused our efforts on the centers and corridors identified in the Wasatch Choice Vision. The scoring methodology uses an assessment that looks at and counts crucial physical features, observes proportions, and creates a numerical score. The assessment looks within the boundaries of the street, one block at a time.

The story map has a variety of tabs, which walk you through the methodology, display the five elements of walkability, and provide an aggregate score. A “Tools and Resources” tab is also included, for those who want to dig in even deeper.

Together, we can expand the definition of streets beyond the needs of just traffic, to include the needs of pedestrians. People are drawn to walkable streets. They are good for communities, good for the environment, and good for business. City leaders are trying to respond accordingly, but often don’t have the expertise or even the vocabulary to describe what it is that they’re after. Our goal is to educate and empower them with real, quantifiable data.

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About the Author

Jon Larsen is the manager of the Modeling, Forecasting, and Information Services group at The Wasatch Front Regional Council (WFRC), located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to joining WFRC, Jon worked for six years as a transportation engineering consultant where he managed projects and performed travel demand modeling, traffic engineering, and transportation planning. Jon is active in the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), and currently serves as the chair of the Utah chapter. He has been a Strong Towns member since 2013.