Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Retrofitting the Suburbs to Increase Walking

This study by Marlon G. Boarnet, Kenneth Joh, Walter Siembab, William Fulton, and Mai Thi Nguyen examined travel patterns in eight neighborhoods in Los Angeles' South Bay region, comparing trends in "pedestrian-oriented centers" and "auto-oriented corridors" in an attempt to better understand what influences walking in suburban communities. The results have interesting policy implications for those of us who'd like to promote walkability in our neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, people who live in pedestrian-oriented centers with "inwardly focused" street geometries walk more than those who live along auto-oriented corridors. The research showed that the number of businesses per acre is most strongly correlated with pedestrian trips, suggesting that "the key is not simply sales but a large number and variety of businesses in a relatively small area."

This led to a related question: can the residents and employees in pedestrian centers support the centers on their own, without "importing" outside customers? Interestingly, the answer was no. In the authors' words, "...pedestrian-oriented centers require a concentration of business activity larger than the local residents can support...people must drive from outside of the neighborhood to support the commercial activity that in turn encourages local residents to walk more."

What does all of this mean for those of us trying to create walkability? The authors offer several policy recommendations:
  • suburban regions should focus both on fostering pedestrian centers and on knitting those centers together with transportation networks
  • planners should promote the development of pedestrian centers by offering incentives such as density bonuses or the elimination of parking requirements
  • transit services should be tailored to the suburbs, such as shuttles between neighborhoods or even neighborhood electric vehicles
While recognizing that turning suburbs into walking meccas will be challenging, this research provides planners, advocates, and policy-makers some realistic suggestions for addressing what is sure to be a key challenge of planning in the next few decades.

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