Jeff Speck is a city planner and urban designer who advocates internationally for more walkable cities.
As Director of Design at the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 through 2007, he presided over the Mayors’ Institute on City Design and created the Governors’ Institute on Community Design. Prior to his federal appointment, Mr. Speck spent ten years as Director of Town Planning at DPZ & Co., the principal firm behind the New Urbanism movement. Since 2007, he has led Speck & Associates, a private design consultancy serving mainly American cities.
With Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Mr. Speck is the co-author of Suburban Nation, which the Wall Street Journal calls “the urbanist’s bible.” His 2012 book Walkable City was the best selling city-planning title of the past decade and has been translated into seven languages. He is also the writer of The Smart Growth Manual and Walkable City Rules.
Jeff Speck has been named a fellow of both the American Institute of Certified Planners and the Congress for New Urbanism. He is the 2022 recipient of the Seaside Prize, whose former awardees include Jane Jacobs and Christopher Alexander. His TED talks and YouTube videos have been viewed more than five million times.
Read the podcast transcript here
Eve Picker: [00:00:08] Hi there. Thanks for joining me on Rethink Real Estate. For Good. I’m Eve Picker and I’m on a mission to make real estate work for everyone. I love real estate. Real estate makes places good or bad, rich or poor, beautiful or not. In this show, I’m interviewing the disruptors, those creative thinkers and doers that are shrugging off the status quo, in order to build better for everyone.
Eve: [00:00:43] Ten years ago, Jeff Speck wrote a book called Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time. Since it was published, the book has become one of the most popular titles in urban planning. His blunt assessment of the state of the planning profession, along with ten steps for improving street design, have forever influenced livability across US cities. Basically, it’s all about walking for Jeff. Listen in and learn. After all, Jeff’s TED Talks and YouTube videos have been viewed more than 5 million times.
Eve: [00:01:34] If you’d like to join me in my quest to rethink real estate, there are two simple things you can do. Share this podcast and go to RethinkRealEstateforGood.co, where you can subscribe to be the first to hear about my podcasts, blog posts, and other goodies.
Eve: [00:02:01] Welcome to the show, Jeff. I’m really honored to have you here, especially because I’m a bit of a Walkable groupie myself.
Jeff Speck: [00:02:09] Well Eve, Thank you. I didn’t know that I was getting into real estate when I was studying design, but that is kind of where I’ve ended up.
Eve: [00:02:17] Yes. Yes. So, you’ve written a very famous book called Walkable City, which is now ten years old. And in it, you tell us how downtown can save America one step at a time. Isn’t that a really radical claim?
Jeff: [00:02:34] I didn’t realize that when I wrote it. You could say it is. I’ll try to explain why it makes sense to me. First, I’ll mention that the book is ten years old, but what’s relevant to you and your listeners is that in honor of the ten year anniversary, we’ve issued a new edition that has 100 pages of new text. So actually, I spent a month or more, well, of course, gathering the information took years, but I spent some time about a year ago doing what I usually do when I write, which is saying, what’s all the stuff that I’ve heard about that I’ve witnessed that, you know, is noteworthy and that I’ve got really ardent feelings about that I need to share. And so, there’s obviously, so much has happened in the last decade. And those 100 pages that I’ve added to the book talk about such things as the promise of autonomous vehicles and Uber and Lyft, which weren’t around to comment on when I was writing the first edition. And of course, COVID and the housing crisis and so many other things. So, it’s in some ways a new book. And I’m very pleased to hear you say it’s very famous. I know it sells well. I know it pays for my breakfast, which is pretty good for a book, but it’s a book that has, I’d like to think that it’s played a role in changing the conversation around cities and focusing on walkability as a key goal, but also a measure of success and just something that if you put walkability at the top of your list and you start to reorganize your city around being more walkable, you end up making all the right choices for your city. So, getting to your question, the book begins with a large segment that’s called “Why Walkability.”
Jeff: [00:04:24] And I would say it’s expanded in the last decade, but essentially what I did or what I tried to do was to bring to everyone’s attention three different issues impacting cities and impacting America that had been brought to my attention. And it was interesting as a city planner to be arguing for better urbanism, better urban design, which we called traditional town planning for a while, and then we called it the New Urbanism, which kind of we still do, but realizing that we were getting kind of a limited response and that arguing for good city planning in the terms of city planning wasn’t really getting the audience that it needed. And that’s when I kind of discovered these three other groups, the epidemiologists, the economists and the environmentalists. All of whom were arguing for the exact same stuff that we wanted, but from their own terms and much more effectively, and really made me think that, yes, if we make our cities more walkable, they will make America a much better place.
Eve: [00:05:25] It’s really not a radical claim then. I mean, it’s radical along with everyone else who’s making the same claim, right?
Jeff: [00:05:31] Well, it’s not radical, but the prescriptions that it then leads you to are not considered exactly standard practice in many of the cities in America and in much of the world, certainly the developing world or other places that imitate America. So, in a nutshell, the Economist’s argument was pretty straightforward. And I know you’ve had Chris Leinberger on your show, but much of the economic argument I learned from him. And it was essentially how, of course, value is generated much more strongly in mixed use, walkable places, and that, in fact, there’s kind of two sides of the coin. One is that we’re bankrupting ourselves with the individual car ownership mandate and that in the US, poor people are paying more for transportation currently than they are for housing. Many of them are paying 40% of their income just to get around, and that’s a tremendous burden on society. And of course, the typical car is costing us $10,000 a year. People talk about affordable housing. They don’t really talk about affordable living. And actually, if you don’t need a car for every adult, that makes it living much more affordable.
Jeff: [00:06:34] But then on the more optimistic, ambitious side, which is what Chris Leinberger talks about, just the fact that the same number, you know, the same square footage of living space in Greenwich Village rents for three times or sells for three times what it does in Greenwich, Connecticut. And if you know Greenwich, Connecticut, it’s an extremely lovely place. But essentially that if you create walkable, dense places, your values and your investment will be so much stronger. But then also just simple discoveries about how, you know, the denser your city is, the more patents per capita you create. And just acknowledging that we come together in dense mixed-use communities because that benefits us economically in so many different ways. The book outlines the money that Portlanders save by actually commuting less, Portland, Oregon. By commuting less, spending less time in traffic because they invested in bike lanes, because they invested in density and transit and the billions of dollars that they save annually by virtue of having made those choices a couple of decades ago. There are many more economic arguments. The epidemiological argument is essentially something I learned from a book called Urban Sprawl and Public Health, and then getting to know the authors of that book, three epidemiologists who were basically saying they studied disease and they studied the health of the culture as a whole. And they said, you know, we have the first generation of Americans who are expected to live shorter lives than their parents. And the average child born after 2000, you know, half of them are expected to get diabetes. It’s just a horrible situation that they say is due to the fact that we have engineered out of our daily life the useful walk. So, you know, there’s a bunch of doctors and others who point to our unhealthy American diet and other aspects of life in America, like car crashes that shorten our life expectancy. But the biggest factor is that walking used to be just something we did every day that made us healthy that we’re not doing because we’ve designed our neighborhoods to cause us to not do it.
Jeff: [00:08:31] And of course, The fix is an urban design fix. And then I do talk a lot about car crashes and their impact. And then finally, the environmental argument is in part not entirely taken from a wonderful book by David Owen, who’s a New Yorker writer called Green Metropolis that you may have seen about 15 years ago. That was going to be called Green Manhattan when he wrote it. Acknowledging that the place in America where people have the lightest carbon footprint is New York City and then asking why? Acknowledging that New Yorkers use a quarter of the electricity to people in Houston, they use one tenth of the gasoline of people in Houston. If you really care about the planet and love nature, if you love nature, the best thing to do is to stay away from it and live in an urban place. The denser, the better. And just wonderful arguments about, in fact, how the maps that show carbon output per square mile are so incredibly misleading. They look like the night sky photographs of the US. You know, they’re hottest in the cities and cooler in the suburbs and coolest in the countryside. But if you if you look at carbon output per capita, those maps entirely flip. And it’s urban dwellers who have the lightest footprint. Now, I should say that in the update, I’ve added two other things that I neglected to focus on enough in the first edition. One, of course, is the social impacts of living in a more walkable place. And there’s been tons of great evidence.
Jeff: [00:10:02] In fact, one sociologist, you know, it was almost like she was doing it for me, did a study that demonstrated that there was no factor that had a greater impact on how sociable people are as how walkable their community is. It’s like the number one indicator of sociability and participation in community activities is living in a walkable neighborhood. Wow. Well, that’s nice to hear. And then something I’d neglected to talk about adequately at all was the equity impacts of living in walkable and unwalkable places and how the ownership of the automobile is a great divider, creating haves and have nots. But more to the point, how with the suburbanization of poverty and a lot of poor people now living in places that were designed only around driving and people who don’t have cars. We have a tremendous epidemic underway. And now, believe it or not, compared to 14 years ago, 82% more pedestrians are dying in car crashes and it’s a function of a number of factors we can discuss. But those trends skew very much towards people of color and poor people. If you’re Native American or African American, you’re twice as likely to be killed as a pedestrian than if you’re not. And then of course, transit, which we advocate for and walking, which we advocate for, and biking, which we advocate for disproportionately benefit those who have less. Particularly people look at biking, people look at biking as some sort of elite activity when in fact, fully 38% of the people who commute for work or school are from the lowest 25% of income earners.
Eve: [00:11:41] That’s really interesting. But I want to know how the walkable theme came to take such center stage in your professional life.
Jeff: [00:11:49] It’s a funny question that I’ve asked myself. I don’t remember any moment or a decision that happened around me becoming the walkability guy. As I suggested, my colleagues and I were always just looking at best practices or better practices in urban design, and we were trained as architects. My mentors, Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, who designed the famous town of Seaside back in 1980, which kicked off the whole New Urbanist movement. And then they started the Congress for New Urbanism with some other like-minded individuals. In 1993, I was there. We talked about New Urbanism, we talked about what we call neo traditional town planning because it was a return to the traditional ways of making cities independent of architectural style, right.
Jeff: [00:12:36] We’re talking about streets and blocks and squares as opposed to the tower in the park or any of these other kind of modernist reinventions of the city, which suburban sprawl is one model of. And it’s really just best practices in urban design. But we’re like comedians who go up on stage and you try your material out, right? And you see what floats and what doesn’t float. And one way or the other, I realized, first of all, that everything that I was advocating for was making places more walkable, but perhaps more significantly, that when you framed it in terms of walkability, which is not a word I invented, but I may have helped to popularize, that people really got it. People understood it and it became a main street conversation. And I would say by making the choice, not the invention by any means, but the choice of calling what we do walkability planning or walkable centered planning, we’ve been able to popularize it much more effectively. Now it’s interesting, though, because it’s not just, you know, as someone who’s into communication, you’ll be curious to know, these things reinforce themselves.
Jeff: [00:13:41] So, it’s not just a communications tool. Because actually, when I started to use the term walkable, I began to see everything through that lens, and it actually modified my practice, and I started doing something for cities. I’ve done 15 of them, called walkability studies. So, if that’s the name of your study, what are you trying to accomplish? So, I would, you know, we’ll come to town, we’ll spend a week, we’ll have about a dozen meetings with all the different constituents in that week. And I’ll begin each meeting the same way. I’ll say my purpose of this study, what you are paying me for, is for us to figure out together in the, you know, how in the least amount of time and spending the least amount of money we can visibly witness the largest number of people, more people walking and biking in your neighborhood. And it’s almost always the downtown of a city when that’s the problem you’re trying to solve, you make a whole bunch of decisions that are a little more straightforward and clearer and more complete perhaps than you would make if you’re just trying to make a good urban plan. So, you know, my general theory of walkability, which is a fun term, talks about how, for people to make the choice to walk the walk has to be simultaneously useful, safe, comfortable and interesting. And each one of those categories then puts forward a series of changes that you can make around improving mixed use, around bringing more housing downtown, subsidizing it if necessary, to have a lot of bodies in your downtown around where we spend most of our time, which is the reconfiguration of streets. And I studied architecture for, you know, years and years and years, I have ten years post-high school of studying architecture.
Jeff: [00:15:20] Now, what I do mostly is measure and design lanes in streets, because that’s where you can have the most impact on the success of a place. Because most of our downtowns in America, the places that are useful, comfortable and interesting, still aren’t safe to walk around because of the speeds that cars are traveling because of the way that they’re designed, and we fix those in cities. So, that’s become a huge part of my practice. And then comfort and interest. Comfort implies space making, spatial definition, giving proper edges to spaces because we like to be in outdoor living rooms with our flanks covered from attack. It’s something we, you know, we’ve inherited along with all animals. The evolutionary biologists tell us all animals are seeking prospect and refuge. So, we’re seeking refuge, we want to know that our flanks are covered. That means that you want to hold the edge of the streets with buildings that are near the street, tall enough to make a space. That’s something we spend a lot of time on. And then finally, interest is a little more straightforward. You know, no one wants to walk past a surface parking lot, past a structured parking lot, past a blank wall or, and this is important, past 100 yards of the exact same thing. So, we have, for example, we introduced into cities the concept of demise lines, which I’ve done in many of my projects, where you take one big building, and you actually get three architects to do the facade and make it look like three different buildings. Then when you walk down the street, something interesting is happening.
Jeff: [00:16:45] As Jane Jacobs says, No one will walk from repetition to repetition or from sameness to sameness, even if the effort expended is minimal. We line the parking with residential. We put some other use on the ground floor, or we just keep it away from the edge of the street. Right? So, there’s all these techniques and from, you know, the biggest scale of mixed use to the smallest scale of the building edge, we don’t leave anything out. And obviously some things are achievable more quickly than others. Fixing streets is often the first thing you can do, which is why I spend so much time on it. And I do a lot of work for mayors who want results within a couple of years because they’re up for re-election. So…
Eve: [00:17:24] Of course.
Jeff: [00:17:25] City planning is notoriously a 20-year phenomenon, right? But the work that that we do for cities, they don’t want to wait that long, and we focus on streets for that reason.
Eve: [00:17:38] Well, that’s a good thing, actually. So, if ten years is enough time to see if your predictions actually came true and I want to know if there were any surprises, if there have been any bad things that have happened over the last ten years.
Jeff: [00:17:53] One kind of smart thing about the book probably is I didn’t make many predictions. I certainly made a whole bunch of recommendations and gave a whole bunch of direction. And I would say, looking back, there’s nothing in that direction. I mean, the book is literally, you know, there’s four categories of the useful, safe, comfortable and interesting walk. But then there’s the ten steps of walkability. And the big part of the book is these ten steps, which include let transit work, get the parking right, mix the uses, make friendly and unique faces, welcome bikes, um, etcetera. And so, each chapter is dedicated to one issue like trees or bikes. But the chapter that I, and I say this in the update, the only chapter I wanted to retract a little bit was pieces of the biking chapter, because first of all, biking is what is evolving the fastest in most, or micro mobility in general is what’s evolving the fastest in most American cities. We are just now catching up with Berlin in the 1990s. I mean literally I was in Berlin in the 1990s and we had the bike lane up on the curb, out of the street, on the edge of the sidewalk. And now when we do new plans in American cities, that’s what we’re doing. You know, I will no longer put a bike lane in the door zone period. Ten years ago, I would because we were lucky to get it.
Eve: [00:19:24] We’re still doing that in Pittsburgh. I just noticed new ones. It’s scary.
Jeff: [00:19:30] I’ll put a bike lane adjacent to two lanes of traffic. If there’s no parking on the other side of it. More often, I’ll pull parking into the street to protect the biking and put the biking either against the curb in an existing street that we don’t rebuild, or if we’re building a new street or rebuilding the curbs, we’ll put the bike up on the curb, separated often from the sidewalk by trees. When I wrote the book, sharrows were respected. In the intervening ten years, a couple studies were done that showed that sharrows, those share the road markings in the roadway, have no positive impact and in certain instances have made streets more dangerous than not having anything at all. So, that’s out.
Eve: [00:20:11] Interesting.
Jeff: [00:20:12] The main thing I wanted to retract was that I was kind of treating the cyclist like any other lobby, bearing in mind I’m a cyclist, I’m also a driver. You know, like most people, I do all those things. I told them, you know, we can’t put bike lanes in every street. I mean, let’s be serious here. You know, if we gave everyone in every street everything they wanted, the streets would all be the size of airport runways. And, you know, it actually isn’t the proper design of a bike network to have bike lanes everywhere. If you go to Copenhagen, you know, the major streets have bike lanes, but the minor streets, most of the streets, almost all of them, are just slow speed, comfortable streets where everyone mixes and it’s better. So, I was a little bit critical of the biking lobby just to be even handed. I’ve now thought better of it. In fact, I’m leafing through my book here and, if you don’t mind, I’ll do a tiny reading.
Eve: [00:21:09] Sure, sure.
Jeff: [00:21:10] And this has to do with my retraction, since you asked. If there’s one passage of this book that I would like to retract, it’s step six’s ‘Don’t get greedy’. Sure, bike advocates are specialists, and we need our cities to be designed by generalists. As I noted, there isn’t enough room in the streets for every specialist to get what they want. But here’s what I got wrong. I’ve yet to see a city do anything requested by a bike advocate that is not made that city better for everyone. I’ve finally been to Copenhagen and biked miles of downtown without the slightest fear for my eight- and ten-year-old boys in front of me. If you haven’t had that life changing experience, don’t begin to think you know what you are doing when you deny a cyclist anything. The cycling city is the city we all need. And remembering Copenhagen fills me alternately with joy and rage. Just today, Milan announced $271 million in funding for a 466-mile citywide bike network. Paris recently upped its biking investment to half $1 billion.
Eve: [00:22:10] Wow.
Jeff: [00:22:11] In order to achieve an 100% cycling city, in quotes. Meanwhile, the Boston Cyclists Union clamors enthusiastically for an increase in the city’s bike budget to $2.6 million. And Boston’s one of the good ones. Don’t get greedy, don’t settle for scraps, demand more, 100 times more, and don’t stop until the very last bike hating motorist throws up their hands and decamps permanently for the suburbs.
Eve: [00:22:37] Or gets a bike, right?
Jeff: [00:22:39] Yeah. So, that was the only real retraction. But I have to say, you know, the book was written to be somewhat timeless and there were a few things it didn’t anticipate, like COVID. It also didn’t anticipate the housing crisis properly enough and was also not fully aware. You know, and I co-wrote and was the principal author of the book Suburban Nation, which is, was with my mentors, which was the best-selling planning book of the previous decade, 2000s. And in that book as well, certainly in Walkable City, I did not pay enough attention to or share enough of the information that people need to know about how racial prejudice has shaped our cities and particularly has shaped our housing crisis and how there is still a crisis for folks of color. And a wonderful book that informed that was Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law. I presume you’re familiar with that book.
Eve: [00:23:34] Yes. I did also interview him.
Jeff: [00:23:37] I would love to get a chance to talk to him. I haven’t yet, but I read that book with great interest, and I excerpt it within my update. I think a lot of that was eye opening to me. Probably the thing that most people don’t know that I didn’t know. I learned it before I read his book, but I didn’t know it until more recently. People always talk about redlining like it was some sort of thing that the banks did, right? Oh, those evil banks redlining, not granting loans for mortgages in mixed race or neighborhoods of color. In fact, that was the federal government. That was Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac. You know, that was that was that was our leaders who said, no, we will not guarantee a loan in any neighborhood of color and also any investment the federal government made in housing development, which was huge, particularly with affordable housing neighborhoods, was mandated to be single race. It’s absolutely incredible.
Jeff: [00:24:35] And then, of course, the strong evidence that Rothstein collects about how the single-family zoning as a concept was basically created as a way to perpetuate race based zoning when the Supreme Court ruled that that was illegal. And then finally, the understanding that the way that the typical American family has built wealth, the typical middle class American family, if it has built wealth, it has built wealth probably through the ownership of a single-family house that got that mortgage deduction.
Eve: [00:25:08] Right.
Jeff: [00:25:08] And that that wealth building opportunity was only made available to white Americans for many decades. You know, as Martin Luther King said, you can’t expect a man to lift him up by his bootstraps if he has no boots. And so, the constant deprivation of opportunity to a portion of our population, I’m getting off topic of planning, but it’s all.
Eve: [00:25:30] But it’s all part, it’s all part and parcel of it. Definitely. I want to drag you back to the suburbs because, you know, in recent years there have been talk about making suburbs pedestrian friendly. And I’ve noticed the suburbs I drive through, you know, I get a little scared when I’m in the suburbs because I don’t know where there is. Yeah, there’s no there there. But I’ve noticed that little pieces of sidewalk emerge. They don’t necessarily go anywhere. It’s amusing to watch. Have you seen any successful attempts to urbanize the suburbs? And is this the future for suburbs?
Jeff: [00:26:12] Well, I think it’s important to understand that most American suburbs, most American post, all American post-war suburbs and most American suburbs have the wrong bones, right? It’s like chipmunks versus dinosaurs or, you know, mammals versus lizards, whatever you want to say. And when you’ve got the wrong bones.
Eve: [00:26:34] You need a lot of surgery.
Jeff: [00:26:36] Well, when you got the wrong bones, you actually, it’s impossibly expensive to change your nature. So, these giant blocks, these arterial highway, arterial collector, local road networks with a major intersection every half mile that constitute probably 50% of the American landscape right now, the built environment. They can’t be changed in a way that will make them walkable. They can be changed street by street, intersection by intersection, you know, roadside by roadside into places that are safer. They can be changed into places that are more bikeable, but they will never have a condition in which walking is a favored means of getting around. Except as we’ve seen, and I’ve participated in several of these, when you get a chunk which is big enough to become a new mixed use town center. And so, you find in places like it’s called City Center in Houston, it’s nowhere near the downtown of Houston, but it’s in the geographical center. That’s a place where a developer got a big enough piece of property and said, let’s have shopping and housing and offices and hotel and cinema and everything in one place. And eventually what you get is a little bit of a town center, and it might be what you call a park once environment, right? But people end up living there. People who work there end up living there, and certain people really reduce their carbon footprint and have a much better quality of life living in those places.
Jeff: [00:28:01] And many of our cities have this. There’s one in Alpharetta, Georgia, called Avalon. You know, they’re all over the place. And they’re, some are better than others. Some are not much better than exterior malls with a main street down the middle instead of pedestrian. But once you get significant housing, hotel, office above the main street, then it’s almost nothing that distinguishes it from being a real town center.
Eve: [00:28:28] Interesting.
Jeff: [00:28:29] The other hope for suburbs is the pre-war suburbs. I was in Tigard, Oregon, which is a suburb of Portland, and they want to be more walkable. And they were almost entirely a driving suburb, but then I discovered, like struggling, but there this germ of a main street, like it was a pre-war main street. And many of our suburbs have these old centers that were disinvested but are still there, are still zoned for mixed use. And if you can get more people living there or allow more people. Change the rules, often to allow more people to live around that old main street, then you get that little walkable downtown core that becomes the heart of the community. And still, most people are driving to it, but not everyone is. And those who do drive to it have that lovely experience when they get out of their car of walking around.
Jeff: [00:29:11] Now, I want to mention I have something to say about this, too. I have a book I’m showing you called Walkable City Rules. That is a book that I recommend mostly to professionals. So, your audience, the realtors, the real estate developers or others in your audience. Walkable City is the book that people read for entertainment. They read it to get convinced. Mostly they distribute it to get to convince other people. And I’ve worked in a lot of cities where they’ve given it out by the box to the city councilors, to others. It’s a great tool for winning converts, but if you’re already doing the work and you just want all the information, you know, all the stuff you need to know, including such little tidbits as when you remove the center line from a local street, people drive seven miles an hour slower. Like that’s good to know. That’s get rid of some center lines. Or when you replace a signal with an all way stop sign, severe pedestrian injury crashes dropped by 68%. Well, that’s a nice thing to do. So, that’s all in there. But there’s one. So, it’s 101 steps to making better places, Walkable city Rules.
Eve: [00:30:16] I’m going to buy that book.
Jeff: [00:30:18] Each rule is two pages. It has a headline, it has a rule at the end, it has a photograph or a chart. Step 100 is Don’t give up on sprawl, it’s where most Americans live. It talks about these two conditions. The opportunity to create a mixed use town center if the economics are there to support it and you have a chunk of land or to find the, you know, the moribund main street that was once there and the rule 100 at the end of the page says, in sprawl, invest in old Main Streets where they exist and otherwise focus on safety for all road users because that’s the main thing that you can accomplish. And I’ll do a tiny reading from this book, which is the sad conclusion. But then there are the newer places like Chandler, Arizona, 250,000 humans doomed to scuttle around perhaps the most utterly placeless landscape in America, 65mi² of entirely car dependent nowhere.
Jeff: [00:31:14] Without the full-scale insertion of a large new town centre, what can be done to make the denizens of the purest sprawl less isolated? While true walkability is out of the question, the most essential improvements would seem to surround safety for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers too. People are dying in these landscapes at an alarming rate, thanks to high-speed road geometrics, inadequate crossings and rare and dangerous bike lanes. Such places can’t really be fixed, but they can and should be made safer using many of the techniques contained in this volume. So, that’s my conclusion for the sprawl.
Eve: [00:31:48] I’m going to I’m going to order that right after this because I want to see those rules. That’s interesting. So, let me ask you, what’s one of your favorite places or cities in the US or elsewhere where you feel really happy walking and why do you love it?
Jeff: [00:32:06] I think the best answer to your question is that any, almost any pre-war city in the US has kernels, pieces that are that are fantastic and a majority that’s probably pretty bad, and that the distinction is not so much among cities as it is among pieces of cities. I would also argue, I think this is important for your audience, that the decision, the contrast also in our work, particularly in Suburban Nation that we wrote about, isn’t about town versus city or town versus village or even suburb versus city, but it’s around walkable versus unwalkable organizational patterns and how there are cities that are unwalkable, there are towns that are unwalkable, there are villages that are unwalkable and the opposite.
Jeff: [00:32:57] You know, I grew up in a suburb. I think many Americans my age did. I’m almost 60. Where I mean, it was a pure suburb. It was Belmont, Massachusetts, next to Cambridge outside of Boston. It was completely walkable. My dad walked to work every day. I walked to the bus that took me into Harvard Square. I walked to school. It’s possible to create cities, towns, villages and suburbs that are fully walkable beyond a certain point, it’s not a question of density. And what’s more important is neighborhood structure. Neighborhood structure means small blocks, small streets, frequent intersections, civic spaces, a sense of center and a sense of edge. You know, the neighborhood and planning terminology is very well defined as being compact, mixed use and walkable.
Jeff: [00:33:43] And so, that’s what really matters. Now, to answer your question and enjoy in my memory some of the wonderful places I love to go, you know, most of those are the places that were not run through with highways that maintain their existing pre-war character. You know, I love to visit the great cities of the South, Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans. Alexandria, if it weren’t part of DC would be another city like Charleston that people would go to just to walk around Alexandria, Virginia. You know, and then there are amazing Western examples, Albuquerque and you know, Carmel by the sea. Carmel by the sea. Excuse me. I’m working in Carmel, Indiana, which is not pronounced the same as Carmel by the sea. But, you know, for big cities, you know, despite the problems with homelessness and other issues, I still think San Francisco is one of the best places in the world to walk around.
Eve: [00:34:40] Yeah.
Jeff: [00:34:41] And in a global perspective, off-season, because the tourists make it hell. But off season would have to say my favorite city is Venice because it has so many wonderful qualities, most of which derive from, independent of its historic character, most of its wonderful qualities derive from the fact there are no cars in it.
Eve: [00:35:00] Yes,
Jeff: [00:35:01] This makes it so amazing.
Eve: [00:35:02] Yeah, but the tourism just almost unpalatable.
Jeff: [00:35:06] But you can truly enjoy it off season and you can live there off season.
Eve: [00:35:10] I’ll have to try that. So, I’m going to put a plug in for Australia because you know, that’s where I grew up and those cities really sprawl. I mean, Sydney has a huge sprawl, a lot of land area compared to a city like New York. But I, when I was a kid, I could walk everywhere. I could catch a bus. I lived in what you would consider a suburb. There was sidewalks on always on one side of the street, if not both. Every neighborhood had, and has to this day, a main street. And those main streets have survived.
Jeff: [00:35:43] I spent some time in Sydney, in Melbourne, in Adelaide, lovely town, in Perth. I have to say clearly Sydney is the most spectacular and most exciting to visit. I found Melbourne to be the place where I wanted to live.
Eve: [00:35:57] Oh, Melbourne’s fabulous.
Jeff: [00:35:59] So much character. But here’s what I observed about Melbourne. Street after or I should say neighborhood after neighborhood of almost endless main streets with no chain restaurants or chain stores on. Mile long. And I think what does, that is the trams. So, you’ve got streetcars in the middle of your main streets throughout, I mean the parts of Melbourne that I enjoy, and that combination of, you know, moderate density. But the streetcar corridor is what allows for all these neighborhoods in Melbourne to not only have Main Streets that are successful and continuous, but have character and unique establishments of, you know, avoiding the chain stores which aren’t a blight, but they sure make places boring. It’s really remarkable.
Eve: [00:36:53] It is remarkable. You know, Australia was a coffee culture well before Starbucks happened and somehow Starbucks could never get a foothold there because you have flat white. And so, yeah, but I think it’s a very, very different expectation about how you’re going to live your life. Not that people don’t have cars and drive a lot, but I think what you said before that I wanted to hang on to is the fact that you’ll walk if there’s something interesting along the way and interest can come in all sorts of shapes and forms, or if you have a destination to go to, you won’t walk if there’s nowhere to go. And so, is that what you think about when you’re designing a place? It’s like a it’s like an anchor on a mall, right? There’s an anchor at each end.
Jeff: [00:37:36] Well, you need to do everything you can to change the zoning and to direct the city investment through tax increment financing or any other tool at their disposal to impact what real estate developers are building. So, If a place needs more housing, then you find a way, which most places do, most urban places do need more housing in the US to be successful or more successful, You reorient the zoning and the investment around that. But that does that takes time. So, you know, the useful, comfortable and interesting walk are all a function of almost entirely the private market which the government can influence. But the safe walk is what the government can typically control immediately and invest in immediately. And so, that is where we short circuit the investment as fast as we can to make it happen. I think it is interesting also to compare Australia to the US or Canada to the US, to the degree our cities were undermined by both being reamed out by highways, but also each individual street being reamed out.
Jeff: [00:38:43] If you look at Manhattan, you know, Park Avenue used to have a park in the middle. Now it has a little median that no one would sit in because it’s just a break in 6 or 8 lanes of traffic. It used to be two lanes of traffic on each side and a big park in the middle. And so many American streets have had the trees removed, the parking removed other things to just carry more cars. In terms of highways, you know, you look at the US cities versus Canada cities and Canadian cities have done so much better in their downtowns. Well, in the US, the federal government invested $0.90 on the dollar. If you wanted to put a highway through your city centre in Canada, it was $0.10 on the dollar. So, you know, there’s choices like that that clearly. People say Americans love suburbs. We voted with our feet, but that’s completely false. I mean, there were incredible subsidies between highway building and home loan, insuring that led to the outcomes we now see.
Eve: [00:39:37] So, I have just a couple more questions. And one is, do you still get pushback? Who gives you pushback?
Jeff: [00:39:45] So, there’s this. Inchoate mass called the automotive hordes, that in certain places and certain circumstances will you know, is the specter that’s looming when you’re trying to make changes in a community. I’ve found that to some degree they’re mythological. Like everyone’s worried about what the motorists are going to think. But most places I work, and I’ve got to tell you, in most places I work, I’m not trying to make driving harder. I’m just trying to make walking and biking easier. And there are ways to do that that don’t make driving harder. Like every city, however congested it is, has certain streets that aren’t congested, or you’ve got a main street. This is, here’s a perfect example. You’ve got a main street that’s in a network, and that Main Street is handling 18,000 cars per day. And like in Lancaster, California, it is dismal. It’s five lanes. It’s a highway, 18,000 cars a day, but it’s in a network. They made a decision in Lancaster to make it only two lanes. They put a parking plaza in the middle. So, they use it for farmers markets and stuff. And when there’s no farmers market, people just angle park in the middle of the street, and it’s become a linear plaza.
Jeff: [00:41:04] This like ten block Main Street. It now only handles 12,000 cars a day. But guess what? The cars are moving on the parallel streets, which is fine. The parallel streets aren’t contributing to the social heart of the city. And in fact, most cities, most small cities and towns, they have only one chance to have a great main street. There’s no reason why that Main Street’s design should be dictated by maintaining the existing throughput. That’s the term, like maintaining throughput network wide. Sure. You know, most communities will fight any decision that limits network wide auto mobility. but you can easily make an argument that you’re going to shift traffic over a street or simply take some lanes away from a street which isn’t congested. And that’s how I work. Understanding, in fact, that behavior adjusts that when you reduce capacity, more people walk and bike and that actually the carmageddon that’s predicted by reductions in capacity never comes when you remove a highway or narrow lanes.
Eve: [00:42:10] That’s a much more sophisticated conversation that I’d love to have and that almost never wins, which is that in fact driver demand is not static, it’s not fixed, it’s dynamic, it responds to the environment. And whenever a highway has been closed or a lane has been removed, we’ve never witnessed the gridlock that people predict because people adjust their behavior and they’re often happier for it. But that’s an argument I try not to make in communities because it’s counterintuitive. Mostly I say we’re going to find ways, and I demonstrate that we can find ways to improve walking and improve biking without in any way hampering the motion of automobiles except to get drivers going the speed limit as opposed to 10 to 15 miles an hour over the speed limit, which is how our our streets are designed.
Jeff: [00:42:57] And, you know, I love to rant and I had a recent editorial in the Hill that your listeners can look up under my name, Speck and The Hill talking about how actually in the US engineers as a matter of practice design streets for ten miles an hour over the speed limit because they’ve learned safety from highways instead of learning it from reality and in reality.
Eve: [00:43:22] That’s interesting.
Jeff: [00:43:22] In urbanized areas where people walk, driver speed is not determined by the speed limit, it’s determined by the environment. And therefore, anything you do to create elbow room or forgiveness is actually causing speeding and death. So, that’s a whole nother aspect of how the traffic engineering profession does not acknowledge that environment influences behavior. They don’t understand that environment influences behavior in terms of traffic, and that traffic demand is dynamic. They don’t understand that environment influences behavior in terms of speeding, and that speeding is caused by the very forgiveness that they introduced to our town centres and it’s really angering because they figured it out in Europe. But here in the US they have not figured that out.
Eve: [00:44:04] No. So, I have one final question for you, and that is what keeps you up at night? Or maybe nothing.
Jeff: [00:44:17] I’m fairly convinced that I’m going to lose someone that I love to traffic violence.
Eve: [00:44:24] Oh.
Jeff: [00:44:25] I mean, the odds are very high.
Eve: [00:44:27] That’s a horrible thought to keep you up at night.
Jeff: [00:44:30] The odds are very high that any of us will lose someone we care about to traffic violence. There’s a 1 in 100 chance that is how you will die in America. Um, it’s more than 40,000 people a year. It’s going up every year. And if anything keeps me up at night, you know, those are the only sort of thoughts that keep me up at night. I’m a good sleeper, but, you know, it’s those near and dear. Otherwise, I would say that, you know, I don’t think we’re taking the right measures to stem climate change by any means. This idea of electrify everything is perhaps necessary, but by no means sufficient to solve the climate problem. You know, the idea that Joe Biden is driving around this 9,000 pound Hummer, not to mention that it’s an anti-pedestrian device whose battery weighs more than a Toyota Corolla. And that that’s going to save the planet is just preposterous.
Jeff: [00:45:27] You know, and between 85 and 90% of the airborne particles that come from driving are from your tires and brakes. So, what are we doing about that? You know, so I mean, there’s so many reasons why different better cars is not the answer. And the question, the question people ask in America is always, how can we make cars better? It’s the wrong question. So, of course you get the wrong answer. Yeah, I think electrification is important, but they’re looking entirely at the supply side and not the demand side for energy and pollution. And that was the mistake of, you know, the war on poverty. It was the mistake of the war on drugs. You know, supply side solutions generally don’t work. And you have to look at the demand side. And the demand side is how can we live lives wonderfully enjoyably, you know, delightfully that cause us to use less energy? And the answer is to collect into villages, towns and cities that aren’t automobile dependent.
Eve: [00:46:26] Well, I’m totally with you on that. And I thank you very, very much for joining me. And I’d love to. I’m actually going to go order your Walkable City Rules immediately, so I know what they are. It sounds like a really useful book. So, thank you, Jeff. I really appreciate you joining me.
Jeff: [00:46:42] Both Walkable City and Walkable City Rules are also on Audible. The Walkable City Rules. I do recommend you get the hard copy because there’s pictures. Walkable City, remarkably, for a planning book has no pictures, which is why it’s one reason it’s sold so well is that it’s, you know, it’s written to be entertaining.
Eve: [00:46:59] Well, thank you, Jeff. I really appreciate it.
Jeff: [00:47:02] Hey, I love the attention. I’m grateful for what you do. And I am happy that you are willing to listen to me rant for so long.
Eve: [00:47:26] I hope you enjoyed today’s guest and our deep dive together. You can find out more about this episode or others you might have missed on the show notes page at RethinkRealEstateforGood.co. There’s lots to listen to there. If you like what you heard, you can support this podcast by sharing it with others, posting about it on social media, or leaving a rating and review. To catch all the latest from me, you can follow me on LinkedIn. Even better, if you’re ready to dabble in some impact investing, head on over to smallchange.co, where I spend most of my time. A special thanks to David Allardice for his excellent editing of this podcast and original music. And a big thanks to you for spending your time with me today. We’ll talk again soon, but for now, this is Eve Picker signing off to go make some change.
Image courtesyˆof Jeff Speck