Walkable City – Speck

A frustratingly, mediocre book with some really good information in it.

Speck, I love your ideas and mission, but please, stick to urban planning.

Rather than spending the time reading this, just watch his Ted talk online which covers all the useful information from the book.

My big takeaway

The one thing that I got from reading the book that I didn't get from the talk was a change in how I judged a "good road".

Previously I measured a road by how effective it was at moving cars quickly with minimal congestion.

When you make this the goal of roads, then you get to where we are. Cities planned primarily around cars which reduces community life, liveability, safety, etc.

Here's why it's the wrong goal.

  • Looking at urban cities and roads we saw lots of people getting hurt.
  • So we did what humans do, we investigated the causes.
  • They turned out to be that cars crash into people or objects and people die.
  • So we separated the people from the cars and removed the trees.
  • We tried to optimize the effectiveness of roads for cars.
  • We did this great.
  • This meant that people felt safer on roads, and hence drove faster (risk homeostasis)
  • Which meant more people getting hurt, so we repeated the cycle indefinitely.
  • Each time creating "safer" roads that killed more people.
  • We have tried to optimise safety around an inherently dangerous thing.


  • "Chaos begets cooperation"
  • A single parking spot cost a lot more than you would think. At a minimum it is 4,000 to create. Not to mention ongoing costs. Research exact amounts.
  • Parking pricing (on and off street) is key to shaping driver behaviour.
  • I always thought cheaper parking was better, but that’s so far from the truth.
  • If you don’t have neighbourhood structure then transit will not likely work. You will get of a train station and what? Nothing will be in walking distance, you would need to get a taxi which would increase cost of trip making it all not worth it.
  • Car sharing is most effective when you have a walkable city. Why? Not really sure...
  • I always thought the function of a good street was to move cars quickly and that roads that limited this ability were bad roads. I’m was very wrong.
  • Figural space is the shape created between buildings that create (or don't) a living room feeling for people to be in.
  • Figural space is a measure of a places spacial ratio (height-to-width)
  • Open planes make us feel uncomfortable.
  • Weather has less of an effect on walkability and cycling than urban design.
  • Risk homeostasis - When we "feel" that something is more dangerous, we are more careful in how we approach it, resulting in safer behaviour. On streets lined with trees and cyclists, we feel there is a risk and hence adjust our speed, which in turn reduces fatalities.
  • We have been trying to optimize for conflicting variables; on one hand we improve roads for carrying cars as fast as possible; on the other hand we try to make roads as safe as possible. But the danger of a car is directly related to it's speed.
  • Humans are great at identifying potential risk in the environment around them. We have been doing this for thousands of years, identifying tigers, dangerous passes and other such risks. So when we are on a wide, flat, clear road we identify less risk, and hence increase our speed to match. What we don't take into account is the inherent risk of driving a car fast. At the point when we are safest we do the exact opposite to what we should, we decrease our safety by speeding up.
  • Trees, trees, tress. You need them everywhere, not just in parks.
  • Parks are nice, but they are a bonus, not a solution.
  • Skyscrapers need bases to give shape to the surrounding streets, rather than space which makes them architecturally superior.


  • "General Theory of Walkability explains how, to be favored, a walk has to satisfy four main conditions: it must be useful, safe, comfortable, and interesting."
  • "Useful means that most aspects of daily life are located close at hand and organized in a way that walking serves them well. Safe means that the street has been designed to give pedestrians a fighting chance against being hit by automobiles; they must not only be safe but feel safe, which is even tougher to satisfy. Comfortable means that buildings and landscape shape urban streets into “outdoor living rooms,” in contrast to wide-open spaces, which usually fail to attract pedestrians. Interesting means that sidewalks are lined by unique buildings with friendly faces and that signs of humanity abound."
  • "If that poor woman had collapsed from heat stroke, we docs would have written the cause of death as heat stroke and not lack of trees and public transportation, poor urban form, and heat-island effects. If she had been killed by a truck going by, the cause of death would have been “motor-vehicle trauma,” and not lack of sidewalks and transit, poor urban planning, and failed political leadership. That was the “aha!” moment for me. Here I was focusing on remote disease risks when the biggest risks that people faced were coming from the built environment."
  • "But we do know what happened in Sweden, where aggressive government subsidies have led to the world’s highest per-capita sales of “clean” cars. The results are in, and, shockingly, “greenhouse gas emissions from Sweden’s transportation sector are up.”"
  • "Green Metropolis, David Owen puts it this way: The real problem with cars is not that they don’t get enough miles per gallon; it’s that they make it too easy for people to spread out, encouraging forms of development that are inherently wasteful and damaging.… The critical energy drain in a typical American suburb is not the Hummer in the driveway; it’s everything else the Hummer makes possible—the oversized houses and irrigated yards, the network of new feeder roads and residential streets, the costly and inefficient outward expansion of the power grid, the duplicated stores and schools, the two-hour solo commutes."
  • "Dan Malouff puts it, “LEED architecture without good urban design is like cutting down the rainforest using hybrid-powered bulldozers.”
  • "Induced demand is the name for what happens when increasing the supply of roadways lowers the time cost of driving, causing more people to drive and obliterating any reductions in congestion."
  • "Metro areas that invested heavily in road capacity expansion fared no better in easing congestion than metro areas that did not. Trends in congestion show that areas that exhibited greater growth in lane capacity spent roughly $22 billion more on road construction than those that didn’t, yet ended up with slightly higher congestion costs per person, wasted fuel, and travel delay.… The metro area with the highest estimated road building cost was Nashville, Tennessee with a price tag of $3,243 per family per year."
  • "It would seem that only one thing is more destructive to the health of our downtowns than welcoming cars unconditionally and that is getting rid of them entirely. The proper response to obesity is not to stop eating, and most stores need car traffic to survive."
  • "the faster a society moves, the more it spreads out and the more time it must spend moving."
  • "Cities were created to bring things together. The better they do this job, the more successful they become. This has always been the case, but there was a time when what was good for cities was not good for citizens."
  • "These downtowns need more housing, but that housing should contribute to a more normal distribution of incomes downtown."
  • "Inclusionary zoning—requiring a set percentage of all new housing developments to meet affordability criteria—hardly requires a mention, except to say that it works and it is always the right thing to do. Every city should have an inclusionary-zoning ordinance in place, and few currently do, because it has gotten the reputation of being a hidden tax on developers and an impediment to the free market. While these criticisms are technically true, they ignore the real experience of inclusionary-zoning programs in action, which is that they have never stifled development. In some cases, they have been shown to accelerate"
  • "The cheapest urban parking space in America, an 8½-by-18-foot piece of asphalt on relatively worthless land, costs about four thousand dollars to create—"
  • "If cities required restaurants to offer a free dessert with each dinner, the price of every dinner would soon increase to include the cost of dessert. To ensure that restaurants didn’t skimp on the size of the required desserts, cities would have to set precise “minimum calorie requirements.” Some diners would pay for desserts they didn’t eat, and others would eat sugary desserts they wouldn’t have ordered had they paid for them separately. The consequences would undoubtedly include an epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. A few food-conscious cities like New York and San Francisco might prohibit free desserts, but most cities would continue to require them. Many people would get angry at even the thought of paying for the desserts they had eaten free for so long."
  • "payments supporting a collective supply, parking benefit districts, and residential permits where needed. Above all, it must be managed comprehensively with an eye toward community success, not just meter revenue. Parking is a public good, and it must be managed for the public good. Such management takes full advantage of the free market but—this is important—it is not the free market.64 The single largest land use in every American city is very much that city’s business."
  • "Communities can only be their best if on-street parking, off-street parking, parking permits, and parking regulations are all managed collectively."
  • "Put in more universal terms, it could be said that people who live in a city want to have access to everything that city has to offer. If the vast majority of those things cannot be reached conveniently via transit, then people of means buy cars and you end up with a driving city. As the city grows, it grows around the car. Its neighborhood structure dissolves and its streets widen. Walking becomes less useful or pleasant and, soon, less likely or even imaginable."
  • "the most part, cities support either driving or everything else."
  • "Neighborhood structure refers to the presence or absence of real neighborhoods, which are technically defined as being compact, diverse, and walkable. A true neighborhood has a center and an edge, and contains a wide variety of activities in close proximity within an armature of pedestrian-friendly streets and public spaces. A traditional city is composed principally of these neighborhoods, interspersed periodically with districts like universities and airports, and corridors like rivers and railways. If you live in an older city, you can probably identify its neighborhoods, like New York’s West Village, Tribeca, and SoHo."
  • "The only way to reduce traffic is to reduce roads or to increase the cost of using them, and that is a bitter pill that few pro-transit cities are ready to swallow. Civic leaders insist that driving remain as cheap and convenient as ever and new systems like DART go hungry for riders. Why take the train when you can drive there just as quickly and park for a dollar an hour?"
  • "The city and its surrounding municipalities must make a commitment to focus development more assiduously at DART stations, including making plans for walkable neighborhoods around every one. They must focus especially on downtown stations, creating truly pedestrian-friendly precincts with high housing densities within them. They must eliminate the on-site parking requirement near all stations, and prohibit new parking lots near stations downtown. Then they must wait … for gasoline to hit ten dollars per gallon."
  • "Charlie Hales is careful to call streetcars pedestrian accelerators and not pedestrian creators, because they do not have any record of filling empty sidewalks."
  • "Principally, streetcars enliven not the downtown, but the new area opened up for development. Downtown only benefits as a secondary impact, if and when thousands of people move into the previously underdeveloped area."
  • "Urbanity means locating all significant stops right in the heart of the action, not a block away and, God forbid, not across a parking lot. This is the problem of the last one hundred yards that haunts so many a bus or train station. Riders should be able to fall into the bus from a stool at a coffee shop.31 If the dimensional requirements of your vehicle do not allow this, then you need a different vehicle. And without true walkability on both ends of the line, your system is a nonstarter."
  • "Frequency is the thing that most transit service gets wrong. People hate to look at schedules almost as much as they hate waiting, so ten-minute headways are the standard for any line that hopes to attract a crowd. If you can’t fill a bus at that rate, then get a van. GPS-enabled time-to-arrival clocks at stations (and smartphone apps) are also essential, and particularly helpful after hours. What after hours means depends on the circumstances, but staying popular may require short headways all evening. The byword here is to provide service frequently or not at all. Limiting service due to limited ridership is a death spiral that few transit lines survive."
  • "These surface investments are often cited by BRT advocates when responding to the biggest criticism of bus systems, that they lack rail’s permanence: how can you drive real estate investment around transit if the transit might leave?"
  • "Generally speaking, the cities with the smallest blocks are the ones best known for walkability, while those with the largest blocks are known as places without street life—"
  • "In a road diet, a standard four-lane street is replaced by a three-lane street: one lane in each direction and a center lane reserved for left turns."
  • "engineers design streets for speeds well above the posted limit, so that speeding drivers will be safe—a practice that, of course, causes the very speeding it hopes to protect against."
  • "widening a city’s streets in the name of safety is like distributing handguns to deter crime."
  • "Narrower lanes are not the only way to slow traffic down. Each and every aspect of the built environment sends its own cue to drivers and too many of those cues say “speed up.”"
  • "Welcome to the world of risk homeostasis, a very real place that exists well outside the blinkered gaze of the traffic engineering profession. Risk homeostasis describes how people automatically adjust their behavior to maintain a comfortable level of risk. It explains why poisoning deaths went up after childproof caps were introduced—people stopped hiding their medicines—and why the deadliest intersections in America are typically the ones you can navigate with one finger on the steering wheel and a cellphone at your ear."
  • "the safest roads are those that feel the least safe, demanding more attention from drivers."
  • "“Chaos equals cooperation.”"
  • "they effectively turned into automotive sewers."
  • "We have already discussed how multilane streets contribute to antipedestrian driving. Add to that the elimination of all friction from cars headed in the opposite direction and the sheer momentum represented by two to four columns of unopposed traffic, and you can see why these streets quickly depopulated."
  • "If they are truly to offer an alternative to the automobile, bikes and trolleys must displace moving cars, not parked ones."
  • "Push-buttons almost always mean that the automobile dominates, as they are typically installed in conjunction with a new signal timing in which crossing times are shorter and less frequent. Far from empowering walkers, the push button turns them into second-class citizens; pedestrians should never have to ask for a light. It is fascinating"
  • "The alternative are those annoying chirping signals that now mark the pace of daily life in crunchy towns like Northampton, Massachusetts. These are unnecessary in a standard (non–push-button) crosswalk, where the visually impaired can hear and predict the direction of traffic."
  • "Smaller cities need to be aware that some big-city best practices just aren’t made for them."
  • "On diagonal crossings"
  • "Jan Gehl puts it, “the widespread American practice of allowing cars to ‘turn right on red’ at intersections is unthinkable in cities that want to invite people to walk and bicycle.”27 It is banned in the Netherlands.28"
  • "the leading pedestrian interval, or LPI, better known as the “pedestrian head start.” With the LPI, the “walk” signal appears about three seconds prior to the green light, allowing pedestrians to claim the intersection before cars do. This is the ideal form of walkability enhancer, since it improves both pedestrian safety and pedestrian convenience, rather than pitting the two against each other."
  • "As anyone who has taken advantage of a good biking city will tell you, cycling has got to be the most efficient, healthful, empowering, and sustainable form of transportation there is."
  • "Using the same amount of energy as walking, a bicycle will take you three times farther."
  • "And if every American biked an hour per day instead of driving, the United States would cut its gasoline consumption by 38 percent and its greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent, meeting the Kyoto Accords instantly.8"
  • "As one compares different biking and nonbiking places, it is interesting to see that climate plays a surprisingly small role. Canada’s Yukon Territory—up there next to Alaska—has twice the rate of bicycle commuters as California.9 In October 2011, icy Minneapolis was named “America’s #1 Bike City” by Bicycling magazine, with 4 percent of all work trips being made by bike.10 Nor is topography a significant factor: San Francisco has three times the ridership of relatively flat Denver.11"
  • "Rather than environmental or cultural, it seems that the biggest factors in establishing a biking city are strictly physical, and of two different types. First, there needs to be urbanism. As John Pucher and Ralph Buehler suggest in their report to the Institute of Transport and Logistic Studies, the main reasons that Canadians “cycle about three times more than Americans” are “Canada’s higher urban densities and mixed-use development, shorter trip distances … [and] higher costs of owning, driving and parking a car”12—all conditions associated with city living. Second, and also cited by the authors, are “safer cycling conditions and more extensive cycling infrastructure”—in other words, streets that have been designed to welcome bikes."
  • "The conditions that support pedestrians are also needed to entice bikers."
  • "In Amsterdam, a city of 783,000, about 400,000 people are out riding their bikes on any given day."
  • "Drivers learn to reach for the door handle with their opposite hand, so that they cannot exit the car without checking for bikes. Food shopping is more likely to occur daily than weekly, to fit it in"
  • "bicycle safety seems to depend largely on how many people are biking, and that the resulting mandate—to create as many cyclists as possible—needs to drive the design of our urban bicycle networks."
  • "Hangzhou, China, where bike stations are located only 330 feet apart, and where not one of the system’s 60,600 bikes has yet to be stolen."
  • "This means that the District has paid more than six thousand dollars so far for each bicycle in service, which seems awfully steep, even though almost all of it has been other people’s money. Some of that cash has been recouped by selling advertising space, but the system will never break even—nor should it be asked to. Just like highways and transit, bicycle transportation will require public investment to succeed."
  • "Do snakes disturb you? Don’t be embarrassed, it’s not your fault. Thousands of years of your ancestors’ being bitten by snakes have planted that fear in your unconscious mind. Without it, your bloodline may never have lasted long enough to create the crowning achievement that is you. The same sort of process explains why, contrary to common perception, people need to be spatially contained by the walls of buildings."
  • "Evolutionary psychologists tell us how all animals seek two things: prospect and refuge."
  • "“if a dinner party is held at narrow tables, a festive mood quickly catches on because everyone can talk in several directions across the table.”4"
  • "The lesson we learn from these places is that walking down a narrow, shop-lined street in icy Boston or sweltering Savannah is a vastly superior experience to walking down an arterial between parking lots and car dealerships on San Diego’s best day. Get the design right and people will walk in almost any climate."
  • "In addition to offering shade, they reduce ambient temperatures in hot weather, absorb rainwater and tailpipe emissions, provide UV protection, and limit the effects of wind. Trees also slow cars and improve the sense of enclosure by “necking down” the street space with their canopies. A consistent cover of trees can go a long way toward making up for an otherwise nasty walk."
  • "As a result, communities that add 25 percent additional tree cover will reduce their stormwater by 10 percent."
  • "Moreover, when the next blight comes, better that it wipe out one street out of ten than one-tenth of every street, because, in most cities, nobody gets a phone call unless the die-off is pronounced and localized. A mandate for replanting often only arises when a street is impacted dramatically. When this happens, that street can be reforested with trees that will once again reach skyward in unison."
  • "Each city’s reputation therefore rests in large part on its downtown’s physical attributes. If the downtown doesn’t look good, the city doesn’t look good. People won’t want to move there, and it will be that much harder for citizens to feel good about the place where they have chosen to live. A beautiful and vibrant downtown, in contrast, can be the rising tide that lifts all ships."



Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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