Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Let us Take a Walk

Semi-Interesting post on Prime Property, ChronBlog's very good real estate blog typically penned by Nancy Sarnoff, from Mike Snyder on downtown walkability that highlighted certain parts of downtown that were decidedly NOT walkable.

I use the term "semi" interesting because I feel that, quite often, the debate around walkability is being conducted on a 'false-choice' plain in a similar vein as transportation. On Twitter I asked Mr. Snyder if 100% walkability was even all that desirable? His response was the predictable "yes, if that's the only way you have to get around." It's not that I disagree that downtown should aspire to maximum levels of walkability it's just that I question whether 100% walkable is practical, or advisable?

Take this example: (fictional)**

Leading to the City of Houston Courthouse you have four major roads. Of those four roads, one main boulevard typically handles 75% of the automobile traffic heading to/from the courthouse. The downside to this is that the road in question is decidedly NOT pedestrian friendly and does not have much access to public transportation. It DOES however have immediate access to a parking garage.

Conversely, the remaining three streets heading up to the Courthouse have wide, well-shaded sidewalks, two streets have a rail component and the third has a major bus transportation stop located within 1/4 mile. Not only do circulator bus routes stop there but so do commuter bus routes that come in from different areas.

On all four roads there's ample capacity for automobile traffic, foot traffic and public transportation, and both the train and bus lines are designed in a way that the busy automobile thoroughfare is relatively unimpeded.

It sounds ideal, but not 100% walkable. It's also not conducive with our current transportation plan, or those who want to reduce the capacity of main auto-carrying roads, or expand sidewalks along those same roads thus eliminating lanes of traffic, in the name of transportation.

It's easy to understand the appeal of older cities that had wide sidewalks installed before the age of the car. It's also easy to wish that Houston had grown up to be that way. The harsh reality is that Houston didn't grow up that way, it grew up in the age of the car. The job then should be to work to keep our stellar car infrastructure in place (since, protestations to the contrary, that's still going to be the dominant mode of transportation for the foreseeable future) while working to expand mobility options in a multi-modal way. Not only would targeted development of this type make more sense, it'd be a better use of public resources in an age where funding is hard to come by.

When it comes to transportation issues I'm in mild agreement with those who insist that Houstonians will be willing to walk to their location. I say mild agreement because I disagree when it comes to distance. For walking in Houston to really be practical my guess would be that the terminus would have to be within a 1/4 mile of the drop off point. When the free downtown trolley stops were in place this was doable because they stopped every 1/2 mile. Metro could make this happen again by introducing a downtown circulator route with frequent stops, followed by one in Midtown, the Heights, the various wards etc. Then Houston could turn its attention to expanding sidewalks on "walkable" roads, ensuring that walkable options were available to almost anywhere you wanted to go.

Just leave the major thoroughfares alone, lest you get ran over by a fast-moving vehicle.

Somewhat Related

**Management apoligizes for the lack of pretty maps or the use of such idioms as "world-class" or "mixed-use" in this example. We would like to note that no one on the editorial staff owns a Mac nor are any of us twenty-something urban-planners. We did however manage to throw in "multi-modal" which is a positive, but not "plan" which is probably a negative.

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