The Primacy of Walking

This blog starts with the premise that we should be able to walk safely to (almost) all places:  to school, work, shops, parks, libraries, cafes, our neighbors and beyond — that if desired, we can walk across cities, between cities, throughout the region and across the continent.  Walking is our first form of transport.  Animal and mechanical forms came later and greatly expanded our speed and our load capacity.  Indeed, the modern city is hard to imagine without mass transit, just as our expansive regional landscapes are hard to fully reach without the automobile.  But walking remains primary, and indeed should be a basic right:  universal pedestrian access.  

The concept of the Walkable City is appealing (and Jeff Speck's wonderful book is as good a statement of basic principles as any I have found).  But it is also not without contradictions, since the modern city (that grows both up and out) historically arises through the addition and replacement of walking with other mobilities.  We may speak of the ideal of “complete streets" as a healthy multi-modal correction of the 20th century dominance of the automobile, but the priorities and urgencies of cars, bikes, transit, wheelchairs, strollers, etc. are not easily reconciled.  To increase accessibility or speed for one mode traditionally reduces speeds or accessibility for other modes. (But some cities with excellent accessibility may point towards compatibilities rather than zero-sum games across modes.)

If the vast majority of people still travel by car, does this imply that the vast majority of public rights-of-way and transportation funds should still go to cars? (This approach would likely reinforce the status quo.)  Does “completeness” in our streets imply equal funding, equal efficiencies, equal access, equal land use, and/or equal safety across modes?  These hard questions do not make the vision of complete streets any less appealing, but it does create significant challenges to overcome through design, law, pricing, land use, and cultural expectations (over freedom, rights of way, speed and deference to others).  Implicit in the complete streets model is an assertion of parity across modes:  that pedestrians and bicyclists should matter as much as car drivers.  This may be a pathway towards the basic right of universal access.

Lowering the Vehicle/Passenger Weight Ratio

Stand next to a street and consider the ratio of the total vehicle weight (machine + human) and the passenger’s weight.  

Pedestrian: 1 : 1 
Pedestrian with school backpack: 1.1 : 1  
Bicyclist:  1.2 : 1
Car: 20 : 1 (depending on car size and number/size of passengers and gear)

Should a goal of pedestrian and bike safety (and environmental sustainability) be to dramatically reduce the vehicle/passenger weight ratio, so that all modes begin to approach the 1:1 ratio?   (High vehicle/passenger weight ratios historically arise from the complexities of the motor and frame, the use of metals, the added weight of fuel, and the apparent passenger safety that comes with vehicle weight.  But times, materials, technologies and priorities shift, and so too hopefully will these ratios.)