Walkability: Good money after bad

Let’s talk about dollars spent. Millions of dollars. 7.2 million dollars specifically, of which 5.5 million came directly from the local economy. The goal? At least according to local leadership, it was to increase quality of life via improved walkability.

First, a caveat: This isn’t going to be one of those pieces denouncing government spending as inherently bad. But neither will it be one that suggests all is well when spending gets characterized as an investment rather than a mere expenditure.

After all, investment itself is a neutral term. There are good investments and bad ones. Smart investments and, well, not so smart ones.

So let’s look at some specifics.

A fairly typical context

South Dekalb County, Georgia, is not all that different from a lot of places. Originally rural and agricultural, it began developing after World War II in the typical suburban pattern of the day — separated uses, subdivisions and strip commercial, and dendritic networks of local, collector, and arterial roads.

Then, in the 60s and 70s, it suffered the scourge of white flight and has been dealing with the challenges of disinvestment — and commensurate efforts to turn it all around — ever since.

Many of these efforts have been rooted in infrastructure improvement. Local leadership calls them investments in the future, which makes for a nice sound bite but also invites the question: How good of an investment is it?

One particular instance

Let’s look at one example, a 3.7 mile stretch of GA-155, also known as Candler Road, that’s ripe for a renaissance local officials have been courting for years. Like in 1999, when adjacent property owners were offered grants of up to $55,000 to construct new buildings or renovate existing ones.

But still, the area has struggled. So when the prospect is raised to spend 7.2 million dollars to spruce it up and make it more walkable, it sounds like a win. The suggestion is that nicer pedestrian infrastructure will make the corridor more inviting, renewed interest will lead to new investment, and new investment will pay off in the form of an improved tax base.

But the devil, at least in my experience, is absolutely in the details. Because investing in pedestrian infrastructure and making a place more walkable are not necessarily the same thing.

Let’s take a look

The investment took the form of new sidewalks, road striping and repaving, landscaping for medians, decorative hardscape, and street lamps.

Click for larger view.

Click for larger view.

Local leadership has specifically stated that the money was being spent to improve quality of life by making the corridor more walkable so it makes sense that the results be evaluated according to that ambition. It’s not particularly difficult. Fairly easy, actually, because encouraging walkability is not an arbitrary endeavor. It’s been studied for some time now and the contextual characteristics that contribute to it are well known.

Perhaps the definitive text on the matter is Walkable City by Jeff Speck. My colleague, Kaid Benfield, summarized Jeff’s 10 steps of walkability on his blog a few years ago. Let’s consider the example at hand through that lens:

1. Put cars in their place. This endeavor contains no reconfiguration of traffic lanes to reduce width and, with it, speed. It does nothing to remove or redistribute lanes either. In fact, the width of public right of way devoted to automotive throughput is identical to what it was before the $7.2 million was spent.

2. Mix the uses. The county’s physical overhaul of the corridor did not include any modifications to the surrounding zoning. It remains single use, auto-dependent commercial.

3. Get the parking right. The Candler corridor has always been over-parked and new development remains subject to a development code whose default outcome is set back strip or pad retail with parking in the front.

4. Let transit work. As a primary corridor, Candler features a MARTA bus route. But none of this pedestrian upgrade, as best I can tell, included bus stop infrastructure or other means of improving the transit experience.

5. Protect the pedestrian. These infrastructure investments do include some features that draw attention to pedestrians, such as crosswalks, but they include no changes that actually privilege pedestrians over surrounding vehicles.

6. Welcome bikes. As mentioned previously, Candler’s lane configuration remains the same. No bicycle facilities have been added.

7. Shape the spaces. Outside of a few spots dating back to the 40s, the present conventional zoning ensures that any future development will include parking setbacks. There is no expectation that street-fronting retail or other space shaping arrangements will materialize.

8. Plant trees. The Candler corridor upgrade includes some ground level median plantings but nothing in the pedestrian realm.

9. Make friendly and unique [building] faces. This is kind of a moot point because there is no expectation of street facing development. With no pedestrian oriented buildings there are no contributing details to consider.

10. Pick your winners. Speck is known for advocating a triage approach to pedestrian infrastructure, wherein ped-related investment is directed specifically to walkable or potentially walkable places where the most good can be done. The Candler corridor fails to meet this standard.

So what’s the point?

When political leadership justifies an expenditure of $7.2 million by saying it will make a place more walkable and yet the completed project, even generously assessed, fails to meet even one of the ten steps towards achieving walkability, it deserves scrutiny.

If I were to ask, I’m sure I’d hear all kinds of reasons why — reasons I acknowledge constitute very real and very common obstacles. It’s a state route and the DOT strong-armed the design (while covering just 24% of the cost). Long term changes to zoning are a separate initiative that may or may not come to pass. Etc. Etc.

Yet ultimately, these enhancements were intended to leverage walkable quality of life to secure new investment and an increased tax base. When that doesn’t come to pass, will leadership answer by saying, “Well, the important thing is that we tried. We had no way of knowing it wouldn’t work”?

I hope not. Because if they do, I’ll feel obliged to point them to this study from Wei Li and Kenneth Joh that explored the financial returns of walkability investments in different scenarios. Consider this:

We found that the highest premiums for walkability are in the most walkable neighborhoods: a 1 percent increase in walkability yielded a $1,329 increase in property values; a 1 percent increase in sidewalk density generated a $785 increase in property values. Homes in neighborhoods that are at least somewhat walkable and very walkable also experienced premium increases, although correspondingly less. In contrast, increasing walkability and sidewalks in car-dependent neighborhoods did not have any significant impact on property values. (emphasis mine)

D’oh! That’s awkward.

So, if we’re not going to pursue walkability in a meaningful, systemic way based on the principles that actually deliver results, and we have the data available showing that pedestrian lip service in car dependent places has no appreciable impact on property values, then exactly why are we — or any of the countless places around the country doing similar projects — spending millions of dollars anyways?

Your guess is as good as mine.

Scott Doyon

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  1. Lorraine Forster says:

    Not everything should be measured by the $. Quality of life should count, but in this case not even quality of life benefited. Before reading the article I looked at the picture and could not see any great change. After reading, I can understand that I was not wrong in my first assumption.

    What we need here and in every community is to put more money in the hands of the many and less money concentrated in the hands of a few. 70% of the economy is driven by consumption. We need more consumers and a better quality of life for all.

  2. Roy Barrett says:

    I live across the other side of the world from Decatur, Georgia [in Queensland, Australia], but took a ‘drive’ along Candler St from Memorial Drive, south to Pantherville – via Google Earth Streetview – and can’t believe that there were ever any prospects for making this strip of virtually solely car-oriented activity along a major arterial road, into a ‘walkable’ route. I’m not even sure who the sidewalks were intended for.

    With respect to the referenced ‘walkability’ study – how does anyone measure a ’1% increase in walkability’?, and, even if it is statistically possible, is it at all meaningful?.

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Thanks, Roy. The study was meaningful to me not so much in the specific numbers you cite but in the fact that, as an indicator of where walkability investments pay off, it seems to confirm Jeff Speck’s triage position and provides places like the Candler corridor with all the rationale they need to reset their expectations and, ideally, their approach. -Scott

    • Ross Monrtgomery says:

      I agree with the article and it is not an isolated case. I suspect the furphy is perpetuated because such investment schemes are bidding for road engineering funds, hence they sugar coat an otherwise traffic flow scheme. I like the idea of investment however because it implies a beneficial return at somestage, and of course we need to devise and apply quality measures which are palpable. Now this is the part where eyes glaze over because engineers seldom assess quality pot post project, and the pop up brigade want to move on wel lafíter the party finishes. $ is a good measurement standard but requires skill to properly calibrate and measure intangibles. It can and must be done. Finally on a purely urban design front we need to stop embriodering traffic arteries because the reality is these are not good quality spaces, and extended walkabilty eventually peters out. Cross points and junctions are viableand should be priority but only after baselinequality surveys. All journeys have a walk component. This is often overlooked.

  3. This does nothing but prove that post-automobile is the way to go. Ot can be done. Print out a #cybercommunity and build it. http://buff.ly/1lEb5G9

  4. The only way to measure walkability is by measuring the number of people who actually walk (output); rather than cherry picking one or two of the easy things you might do to make walking more attractive than it is (input). You may have to tick all 10 boxes to make a difference.

  5. Well written Scott. Your question, What the Point? is a very important one! It doesn’t appear that (1) there was a clear objective of what walkability really means or looks like, and (2) designers understood or were committed to employing the proper tools to achieve it.

    Resources were expended, things changed, but the efforts did not add up to walkability.

  6. Jeff Speck’s recommendation to pick winners and losers has some validity, particularly if you’re talking about creating great places to walk.

    Yet there’s far more to life than property values. Indeed, for people who live along places like Candler Road in Dekalb County, investments in sidewalks and safe crossings can be a matter of life or death. Candler Road is one of the deadliest roads in Georgia for people on foot.

    Due in large part to the lack of affordable housing in urban areas, many people who do not drive cars live in suburban areas that were designed for automobile travel only. Walking is a human right, and everyone deserves to be able to walk along and across streets safely.

    When I refer to life or death, I’m not just writing about reducing traffic fatalities. Chronic health conditions are responsible for 7 out of ten deaths in the United States. Walking is one of the easiest ways for people to increase their physical activity. So it’s no surprise that the public health community thinks of walking as medicine.

    When the Surgeon General released his Call to Aciton on Walking and Walkability in September, he encouraged all sectors to focus first on areas that are most disadvantaged. At the national Walking Summit a month later, speaker after speaker made the same recommendation. Some places will never be great places to walk. They can, however, be made less deadly. Those of us who support walkable communities must not turn our backs on people who live and work along wide, high-speed arterial roads.

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Thanks, Sally. There’s nothing here I disagree with. What I *do* disagree with, however, is projects, particularly expensive ones, that fail to live up to the promises they carry with them.

      If the Candler project had been described as one to “improve pedestrian safety and accessibility, particularly as it relates to crossings of the Candler auto corridor” I’d be looking at it through an entirely different lens. There would be a legitimacy and a transparency there. But as orchestrated, it feels more like a bait and switch… an attempt to secure funding through deception.

      If leadership makes the point that they’re intending to improve walkability, I don’t think it’s out of line to assess their results on that basis. In doing so, I see two potential outcomes: either increased efforts are made in the future to achieve more livability “bang for the buck” in infrastructure design and spending; or leadership becomes better at setting community expectations up front as to exactly what they’re actually going to accomplish. Either would be a win in my book.

      • You’re correct that Dekalb County should have described the project as one aimed at improving safety and access for people who walk.

        Fortunately, the Atlanta Regional Commission now allocates $12.5 million per year to a Last Mile Connectivity program. The program favors safe crossings at transit stops, something we’ve promoted for at least 5 years. In response to our request, ARC mapped the proximity of pedestrian crashes to bus stops in 2010. The results provided a wake-up call. 21 percent of all crashes occurred within 100 feet of a transit stop. Nearly half occurred within 300 feet.

        With safety projects, transportation agencies often allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. I’m a big fan of median refuge islands and would like to see these in far more places. Engineers can come back later to install more facilities if needed.

        The WalkUP movement has inspired strong interest in creating walkable places — but as you know, many places that want walkability are unwilling to increase density or connectivity.

  7. George R. Frantz, AICP says:

    Unfortunately this project is by no means unique. Particularly sad are those where the designers waste even more $$ to include “amenities” such as small plazas and park benches along the route, as if sitting on a park bench facing a busy 5-6 lane arterial would be a pleasant experience. Lacking in the design of all of the projects I am familiar with is any acknowledgement of the fact that 1/2 mile is about the range of comfortable walking, and that distance and population density are critical factors in determining “walkability.”
    Fortunately, in many of these cases it’s still possible for land use planning and zoning codes to catch up.

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