Walking—our oldest mode of transportation—can inform the future of urban mobility

February 12, 2020 Nels Nelson

New technology enabling walkability also holds the key to enhancing community design

 

Walking might be the oldest form of transportation, but that hasn’t stopped technological innovation from changing how we walk. From the advent of mobile maps on iPhones to counting steps on your FitBit, the simple act of walking from place to place has become more productive and efficient because of recent technological advances. Communities are actively becoming more compact, safe, and enticing, which leads to more walkable, lively, and sustainable places.

With technology companies edging their way into the walking space, transportation planners are getting smart about understanding why and how people walk in communities. Walking’s foothold in the United States is already tenuous. According to the US Census Bureau, walking accounts for only single-digit percentages of all trips taken. That includes the most walking-centric US cities of New York, San Francisco, and Boston. For comparison, in the world’s most walkable cities, more than 30% of all trips are made on foot.

But don’t let these stats fool you. Tech-savvy planners recognize the fact that walking still holds the key to unlocking value in our communities. Walk away with an idea for your community by seeing how unique innovations and technology are shaking up cities today.

 

A 2018 e-scooter pilot in Portland, Oregon, found that 37% of users would have walked if e-scooters had not been available on their last trip.

 

Monetized walking

Within the micromobility industry, shared e-scooters taking cities by storm have been referred to as “monetized walking.” And indeed, scooters are replacing walking trips. A 2018 e-scooter pilot in Portland, Oregon, found that 37% of users would have walked if e-scooters had not been available on their last trip. Scooting isn’t necessarily bad, but the side effect of eroding walking’s already tenuous foothold should be considered.

Mobility as a Service (MaaS) allows customers to plan and pay for their travel across a variety of transportation modes, including transit, shared fleets of cars, buses, bicycles, scooters, mopeds, _q_tweetable:While walking is often taken for granted, it has a higher social value per distance traveled than any other transportation mode studied._q_and even tolled roadways. An early leader in MaaS, Whim is a service claiming to offer “one app for all your transport needs—public transport, city bikes, taxis, and affordable rental cars.” It is so convenient that a survey of Whim users in Helsinki found them to be 15% less likely to walk or bike on a given trip.

Stantec’s Urban Places team plans walkable communities that accommodate the latest transportation technology while also ensuring that walking is maintained and supported. At Sidewalk Toronto, for example, our team planned mobility options to put shared bikes and scooters within reach of every building, while also giving the highest priority public spaces to pedestrians. Our experts collaborated with the larger team to create a public realm that puts people first. We ensured that infrastructure does not disrupt public space and integrated dynamic curbs to make spaces that can be drop-off zones or public space depending on the time, day, and season.

 

Every step you take

While urban planners tend to focus on walking for transportation, other important considerations are human behavior, social contexts, personal characteristics, and needs for social interaction. Take the City of Eindhoven, in the south Netherlands, as an example.

City leaders wanted to know more about where and how its citizens got around, so it paid citizens to participate in an anonymous study (Mijn 040 Routes) that recorded their movement via a smartphone app. They found that the motives for walking were surprising. Only 30% of walks were directly between an origin and destination. The remaining 70% of walks had very long detours or were full round trips. This indicates that the residents may walk for pleasure and recreation (with or without a dog) more often than we might think otherwise.

Maybe you aren’t the type to sign up for a survey that tracks your movements. That doesn’t mean you don’t count. Smartphone location data is being anonymously collected through a variety of means, including through free apps and advertisements. The information generated from these data, also known as “big data for mobility,” can be put to good use, such as planning for transit and optimizing transit-oriented development for the expected mix of transportation modes.

 

The plan for One Charlestown includes pedestrian-friendly streetscapes, scale, and public realm that invites the broader community to share new parks and amenities.

 

Hack the system

While walking is often taken for granted, it has a higher social value per distance traveled than any other transportation mode studied. A 2019 study examined the true costs of driving, bicycling, and walking with a comparative cost-benefit analysis. The researchers found that driving has a highly negative cost once health, road maintenance, environmental pollution, and operating costs are considered. Bicycling and walking, however, have positive social values mostly related to improved health outcomes and very low environmental impacts. This might sound abstract, but cost-benefit analyses are important considerations when planning infrastructure investment.

One of the most effective ways to intervene in a system is by defining goals. That is exactly what the City of London did. The annual bonuses of the City’s transportation department leaders are connected to their performance in applying their Healthy Streets Approach. This strategy has been successful in keeping the pressure on realizing planned complete streets. I like the approach of using incentives as carrots rather than punishing sticks to motivate a bureaucracy.  

Municipalities are not the only ones investing in walking infrastructure. With an understanding of health benefits accrued by walking, healthcare providers are starting to see the (monetary) value in terms of return on investment with healthcare spending. I’ve written previously about how new districts applying the WELL Community Standard and district-scale hospital community investments can contribute to thriving walking districts. Single-payer healthcare systems share financial risk between insurers and providers, which incentivizes hospitals to treat upstream health determinants. In the US, providers have already spent hundreds of millions of dollars on community-building interventions. For example, Kaiser Permanente’s place-based Community Health Initiative has been implemented in 60 communities and includes strategies such as installing a lighted walking trail to address obesity.

With the fast pace of innovations in placemaking, data, and policy, there’s great potential to create robust walkable communities that are closely informed by proven community needs and trends. Let us know what gets you walking!

About the Author

Nels Nelson

As a senior planner focusing on smart cities and mixed-use design, Nels helps cities and towns become happier, healthier, and more resilient.

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