Monday, September 9, 2013

A Ten-Minute Neighborhood is Essential but Insufficient for Walkability

A walkability rule-of-thumb is that motivated pedestrians will walk to destinations that are ten minutes away before resorting to cars.  So time is a fine initial measure of walkability.  But it isn’t sufficient.  Others factors also affect walkability.

In “Walkable City”, Jeff Speck offers four criteria for a walkable place; usefulness, interest, safety, and comfort.  The first three can be judged somewhat objectively.   Comfort is a more subjective judgment, although it’s equally important.  Indeed, Speck notes that all four are essential to walkability.  If even one is missing, then walkability is impaired.

Different development patterns can greatly affect comfort.  From my home, which is in a moderately walkable neighborhood on the westside of Petaluma, there are several schools that are less than ten minutes away, along with a convenience store, deli, pub, and barbershop.  I could wish for more breadth of commercial businesses, but my walking opportunities are fairly good.  And a fine dinner house is only eleven minutes away.

But what makes my neighborhood truly walkable is that all of the destinations front directly on sidewalks.  Nor do any of the streets have particularly heavy traffic.  None of my possible destinations require passing through parking lots or using sidewalks next to heavy traffic.  All of them involve comfortable walks.

Devin Paige Willis similarly notes the value of pedestrian comfort in an article for Global Site Plans.  She notes that the number of retail opportunities within a ten-minute walk of her urban apartment is almost the same as for the suburban home of her parents.  But the retail outlets in the suburban setting are reached through a shopping center parking lot, so the walk doesn’t offer the same comfort.  (The parking lot probably also fails another of Speck’s criteria, interest.  Parking lots are inherently boring to pedestrians.)

The equivalent to Willis’ dual observations can be found in Petaluma.

A friend recently noted that there are residential locations on the eastside of Petaluma where key retail destinations are closer by foot than on the westside.  This is true despite the westside being generally perceived as more walkable.

He was correct, if one measures walkability solely by walking time.  However, most eastside destinations have large parking lots that negatively impact the pedestrian experience.  And many of the eastside pedestrian routes have sidewalks that adjoin collectors or arterials, so have the discomfort of walking next to heavy traffic. 

If we measure walkability solely by time, we reach the unexpected conclusion that portions of Petaluma’s eastside are more walkable than the westside.  But when we consider the comfort of the pedestrian experience, which is an essential check as long as most of us have cars to which we can resort if walking ceases to be enjoyable, the walkability of the eastside seems less attractive.

I suspect that most North Bay cities have similar situations.  Neighborhoods may be close to commercial cores, but the commercial areas are so auto-oriented that walking to shop is uncomfortable and rarely done.  Walkability is an elusive goal.  But still highly worthwhile.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (


  1. I live on the EastSide and our development has a really nice sidewalk to surrounds the community with plants and generally a nice walk. With that said I call it the "sidewalk to no where" it just runs directly into Lakeville and then ends. I wouldnt mind walking Lakeville if there was a sidewalk, but I dont want to walk in the dirt. So I have to walk another 3/4 mile to get home zigzagging through residential neighborhoods. Its frustrating.

    1. Blake, thanks for the comment. Yeah, I see a lot of sidewalks around town that are good for daily exercise, but not much else. Looking at Speck's four criteria, safety and comfort are met and interest might be acceptable, but there's no usefulness. And unless all four are met, there is no walkability.

  2. The four criteria are very helpful to my thinking and fit my experience. The newly-extended street-soothing (aka, "road diet") of Petaluma South in Petaluma is within my ten-minute range and has made walking downtown both safer and more comfortable for me and my dog. I have noted the proximity of many eastside amenities to housing and didn't have as communicable set of criteria to explain why it still seemed like "the eastside," which I found disappointingly unwalkable when I lived near Caulfield, despite lots of mature street trees I valued a lot. I thought it was maybe "the culture." Speck's criteria present specific actionable ways to see how design affects culture.

    1. Barry, thanks for writing. And thanks for mentioning the road diet. Many are still arguing how it works for cars, but it seems clear that the pedestrian experience is improved. Using Speck's criteria, usefulness and interest were always met between your neighborhood and downtown, but the road diet was needed to provide safety and comfort.