Walkable City

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

Urban planning is fascinating. It’s also more relevant than ever for me as I’ve been visiting a lot of cities around the world and recently had to choose a new city to work in. But reading books on urban planning is dangerous. In most social science books, the text alternates between diatribe against the people who don’t get it and a litany of paper citations. This one was honestly no different, but the points were well made. One qualm I had was that the author often cited international examples (e.g. Amsterdam) to prove his points, but I’m not sure American cities are worse than the global average. There are a lot of horrifically designed metropolises in the world. While the book is obviously focused on the US, the author could have provided much more color by exploring some negative international examples as well.

1) A 1-point increase in Walk Score corresponds to a $500 – $3000  increase in real estate value.

There’s no way this relationship is linear or at all comparable across different cities, but I’ve noticed that the walk score is surprisingly prominent on listings.

2) In the mid 1970s, 1 in 10 Americans were obese. Now, 1 in 3 are.

My first instinct was that this is some type of measurement bias. If not, that’s unreal.

3) LEED buildings and Priuses both mask the larger problem, that the location of the building is the most important variable.

Saving the trees but not the forest.

4) Induced demand is the phenomenon that more roads lead to more cars and don’t reduce congestion.

Similarly, if you try to make roads safer by making the lanes wider, people just drive faster.

5) The Cheonggyecheon stream in Seoul used to be a highway.

This was seriously my favorite part of Seoul (which otherwise is massively disappointing.) I can’t imagine the whole thing as a highway. It’s a really great example of how roads kill living space.

6) Granny flats are secondary units on a given property.

It’s a tough sell. I can’t see Americans adopting this en masse given the the prevailing NIMBY sentiments. If it’s for family members, many homes have extra rooms already. The market for strangers is kind of more in the Airbnb space now (although the goals are very different).

7) In 2011, SF implemented a pilot program that adjusted parking rates on certain streets to see how it affected parking usage.

The report is legit, and this program must be the dream of data-driven urban planners.

8) Road diet is when four lanes are reduced to three lanes, with the middle for left turns.

I’m always apprehensive when I’m driving past these or using them.

9) When Sweden switched from driving on the left side to the right side in 1967, fatalities dropped 17%.

I had listened to a 99% invisible episode on this “H-Day”. Nice to see it referenced here. Again, nudging people to be more careful by introducing dangerous situations actually works.

10) The current accepted practice is to not plant too many of the same trees in a row because the city then risks losing all the trees to a specific disease.

Although the author argues against this practice, it really shows how much thinking needs to go into building a city, including where to plant trees, how many to plant, what types of trees to plant, etc.

I’m very biased towards making cities walkable. I don’t ever want to own a car, and this drastically cuts down the list of US cities I can realistically live in. I only consider cities where people can walk or take public transportation. However, Uber/Lyft is starting to really open up more options, and unfortunately ride hailing is glaringly missing from this book. Uber/Lyft has probably been the single biggest change to urban living in the past few decades, and they introduce a whole host of new challenges. I get the sense that there are more cars on city streets now, as people substitute walking/transit with ride hailing. Early studies  are coming out now about their impact, and I expect a book soon. But, by that time, maybe we’d have self driving cars.

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