What is the future of walkability in an autonomous world
Autonomous vehicles should make life safer for pedestrians, but will they hurt demand for walkability?
Recently, there’s been an increased push to make our downtowns and suburbs more walkable. Urban planners and citizens alike have tried to undo some of the car-centric nature of our urban environment. Jeff Speck, who literally wrote the book on the topic, fears we could be headed for a reversal of that pendulum swing as autonomous vehicles usher in a new age of sprawl.
In a recent talk at the Congress for a New Urbanism, Speck said, “Every major transportation advance has brought with it whole new concepts of what the city is. The problem is that all these inventions have turned out to make our lives worse, and we have to come crawling back from them. What works best for humans is the traditional city of blocks, streets and squares… Traditional urbanism was not an invention but evolved naturally as a response to human needs. The adoption of autonomous vehicles should not be allowed to replace it with something different.” When he asks What the Future, he’s focused on the ability of cities to meet the demand for walkability whatever the autonomous future may hold.
GenPop: We surveyed about what amenities people can walk to, want to walk to and do walk to. What did you think of the data?
Jeff Speck: The first thing I want to say is, I take this data seriously, and I’m not trying to explain it away. But it doesn’t match the data that I’ve seen and repeated. I’m always hearing, “We want walkability,” and of course I’ve built my career on the fact that people want it. I’m flabbergasted that only 39 percent of respondents want to be able to walk to a grocery store. Why do only 34 percent of people want to be able to walk to a public park? Who are these people?
GenPop: Maybe it comes down to what they picture when the question is asked.
Speck: Yes. Say you live among suburban sprawl. So you picture each of these places in the sprawl scale. You picture the restaurants behind the parking lot. You picture the school that’s massive and disconnected. You picture the megachurch. You picture the office park. Those destinations are not attractive things that you would want to walk to because of their site design and the architecture.
GenPop: Refresh our memory: What are the benefits of walkability?
Speck: There are clear health benefits in terms of less inactivity. There are clear economic benefits in terms of money saved on transportation and spent on more productive things locally. There are obvious environmental benefits in terms of reduced greenhouse gases. There are also social benefits in that you can demonstrate that people who know their neighbors better and have broader social networks and are happier in more walkable places , but that, again, is something that people aren’t necessarily thinking about. Finally, there are equity benefits in the sense that among those who can’t drive, the poor and minorities are disproportionately present.
GenPop: What can cities and others do to help promote walkability?
Speck: I’m the last person to advocate for walking campaigns. My opinion, and it’s in no way sullied by this information, is that because we know walkability is better for society – whether or not people say they want it – then a society which values its future economic, health, environment, equity and community will invest in it in the same way that they invest in health care. The bottom line is there’s no encouraging walkability, there’s only providing landscape which makes it great to walk . We try to create places where the walk is useful, comfortable, safe and interesting. The main issue isn’t how many people want more walkability than they have, it’s that there are a lot of people who want walkability and don’t have it. I hear them every day.
GenPop: Much of this issue of WTF focuses on the rise of autonomous vehicles (AVs). How will the walkable nature of our cities change as people are able to take some form of transit that will automagically transport them someplace?
Speck: A) It’s already happened with Uber and Lyft and B) It’s going to be another 10 or 15 years in terms of the even lower cost that comes with full autonomy. In the meantime we’re just going to see further adoption of Uber and Lyft.
GenPop: When AVs get here, what will change?
Speck: The best thing that can be said about AVs is there will be a lot less drunk driving. That’s great. I’ve been an American long enough to know that a fleet of publicly owned AVs does not constitute freedom. But AVs are clearly very bad for traffic and bad for transit . In New York City, subway ridership has been declining [due to services like Uber and Lyft] since 2016 and the street traffic is measurably worse. According to one study, ride-hailing services are responsible for a 3 to 4 percent jump in citywide traffic in New York.
GenPop: If cars are autonomous, will we need fewer of them and will that be safer for walking?
Speck: I think we have this misconstrued idea that if there are fewer cars, and fewer of us own cars, there will be fewer cars manufactured . Most people haven’t thought that through. What determines the number of cars made is actually how many miles are driven. It isn’t like switching cars to Uber and Lyft miraculously causes cars to last longer. In fact, the need to have a nice car to be an Uber and Lyft driver may suggest people get rid of older cars sooner. So, again, this 169 miles thing [ed: one study showed that ride-hailing services drive approximately 169 miles per 100 miles of customer travel] rears its ugly head because if vehicle miles traveled (VMT) goes up that also means that more cars will be manufactured.
GenPop: Are you worried about a new wave of suburban sprawl?
Speck: If you lower the cost of driving, people will drive more. It’s going to be a huge engine for [suburban] sprawl, a huge engine for VMT. It will be like another auto age – an auto age squared. That portends very badly for cities. I’m not one of those people who predicts the future he wants, but I kind of hope it doesn’t work.
Source: Ipsos survey conducted between December 19 and 21, 2017 among 1,100 adults employed full- or part-time
The urbanized Canadian population is more clustered than in the U.S. — typically with greater access to public transportation. In responding to these questions Canadians generally reported much higher access to walkable amenities, a higher desire to walk to places and a greater occurrence of walking to destinations.
March 28, 2018