Walkability reaches a tipping point

There’s little doubt about it: the 20th century was the century of the car. Nearly 90 percent of American households own automobiles, and the numbers aren’t much lower in countries from Malaysia to Lebanon.

Beirut traffic

Beirut traffic

As cars became the dominant mode of transportation over the past 100 years, the world reconfigured its cities to accommodate them, widening roads and building behemoths of highways while neglecting other means of mobility — walking, for instance.

But now, it seems the era of the auto is waning. Urbanization, demographic shifts, and rapid technological change are leading to a decline in car ownership in many countries. How do we take advantage of these trends to create a more sustainable, healthier future? How do we make cities built for cars (which, in the United States, means almost every city) walkable again?

Aerial view of Los Angeles

Aerial view of Los Angeles

Towards a walking world

An interdisciplinary research team at Arup has spent the last six months exploring this question. The resulting publication, Cities Alive: Towards a Walking World, looks at 80 case studies around the world, identifying 50 benefits of increasing the walkability of cities and 40 actions that could be taken right now to help us reach this goal.

Perhaps most importantly, it describes 50 “drivers of change” — reasons that making cities more walkable should and could happen today. “There are the demographic factors, such as aging populations and shrinking families, leading to an increasing need for social experience to avoid isolation and social exclusion,” said Demetrio Scopelliti, an architect at Arup’s Milan office and the project’s lead researcher. “There’s the fact that young people care more about the latest smartphone technology than the latest car. There’s increasing concern for the environment and increasing awareness that walking can improve physical and mental health. These issues are coming together to pull us towards walkability.”

How do we make cities built for cars walkable again?

Urban opportunities

So how can our cities be retrofitted for walking? Among the ideas highlighted in the report: adding public art to walkable areas, providing economic incentives for not driving, and reconfiguring parks and streetscapes to make them more amenable to pedestrians. Each of the 40 actions identified has been implemented in at least one of the 80 case studies, meaning they’re not just theoretical suggestions, but realistic solutions.

One of the most successful approaches, according to Scopelliti, seems to be road diets: reallocating lanes once devoted to cars for different functions, such as cycling, walking, or landscaping. “A road diet is a great way for cities to reclaim redundant street space devoted to cars,” the report states.

Barcelona recently approved a plan to dramatically reduce car traffic in its Eixample district

Barcelona recently approved a plan to dramatically reduce car traffic in its Eixample district.

Changing times in Times Square

You can see this strategy in action in New York City’s Times Square, where the City has removed several vehicle lanes to create an attractive pedestrian zone. Although controversial when first suggested, the proposal won supporters due to its low cost, ease of implementation, and reversibility. The new streetscape has proved popular with locals and tourists alike.

“New York sees the value of these quick, implementable strategies, using really simple things like paint to transform the way a space is used,” said James Francisco, an urban designer in Arup’s Manhattan office who worked on the study.

Times Square

Times Square

Walking wonders

Some of the strategic co-benefits the research identified are fairly obvious, such as cutting pollution by taking cars off the road, curbing urban sprawl, and producing human-scaled public spaces. But others are less so — economic rationales, for instance: walkable places have been proved time and time again to attract new residents and tourists to cities, increase foot traffic around businesses, and raise property values. In Barcelona, redesigning streets for walkability helped raise annual visitor rates by more than 300% in some areas. Pedestrianizing London’s Trafalgar Square has made it more popular as well.

Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Square

But perhaps more surprising is what walking can do for people who live in cities. Walkable places have been linked to an increased sense of social cohesion, in addition to helping fight health problems associated with sedentary lifestyles. They can also make us happier and more creative. One Australian study found a strong correlation between recreational walking and improved mental health, while Stanford researchers demonstrated that “walking opens up the free flow of ideas.”

Walkable places can make us happier and more creative.

Global pedestrianism

Now the question for Scopelliti and his team is how to convince the world of walking’s worth, especially as developing nations around the world look to North America and Europe for guidance.

“It’s fundamental that we don’t make the same mistakes in Asia, South America, and Africa that we made in Europe and the US,” Scopelliti said. “We have to share the experience we had here with cars and use that as an opportunity to design cities differently.”


Questions or comments for Demetrio Scopelliti or James Francisco? Contact demetrio.scopelliti@arup.com or james.francisco@arup.com.

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